The Welsh Girl

( 38 )

Overview

Set in the stunning landscape of North Wales just after D-Day, Peter Ho Davies’s profoundly moving first novel traces the intersection of disparate lives in wartime. When a POW camp is established near her village, seventeen-year-old barmaid Esther Evans finds herself strangely drawn to the camp and its forlorn captives. She is exploring the camp boundary when the astonishing occurs: Karsten, a young German corporal, calls out to her from behind the fence. From that moment on, the two foster a secret relationship...
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Overview

Set in the stunning landscape of North Wales just after D-Day, Peter Ho Davies’s profoundly moving first novel traces the intersection of disparate lives in wartime. When a POW camp is established near her village, seventeen-year-old barmaid Esther Evans finds herself strangely drawn to the camp and its forlorn captives. She is exploring the camp boundary when the astonishing occurs: Karsten, a young German corporal, calls out to her from behind the fence. From that moment on, the two foster a secret relationship that will ultimately put them both at risk. Meanwhile, another foreigner, the German-Jewish interrogator Rotherham, travels to Wales to investigate Britain's most notorious Nazi prisoner, Rudolf Hess. In this richly drawn and thought-provoking work, all will come to question where they belong and where their loyalties lie.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Ho Davies's long-awaited first novel is a grand, epic wartime romance, a moving and richly imagined story that explores the conflicting bonds of love and duty. In 1944, WWII has finally made its inexorable journey to the remote mountains of northern Wales, as German POW camps, guarded by British troops, dot the once-tranquil countryside. Centuries of distrust and antagonism divide the locals, none more than 17-year-old Esther Evans, the Welsh girl of the title.

Burdened by her own painful secrets, Esther is barely aware of the German captives until one calls out to her in English. That soldier, Karsten Simmering, broken and ashamed, no longer knows what he was fighting for. When he spies Esther lingering outside the camp's fence, and the words "Don't go" slip unexpectedly from his lips, he has no idea what lies ahead; their illicit romance will test their most deeply held beliefs and place them squarely in the center of a moral and political maelstrom.

The Welsh Girl never falters in its portrayal of the impossible compromises we make for family, love, and country. Ho Davies has penned an arresting and confident first novel that's both compassionate and complex. (Spring 2007 Selection)
Jennifer Egan
Davies’s achievement is significant: like good social history, The Welsh Girl invites us to question history’s master narratives, which have a way of wiping out the contradictions and complications of real life, much like the propaganda films Karsten is forced to watch in the P.O.W. camp.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Esther, a WWII-era Welsh barmaid, finds her father-a fiercely nationalistic, anti-English shepherd-provincial; she daydreams that she'll elope to London with her secret sweetheart, an English soldier. In short order, Esther is raped by her boyfriend, and her Welsh village is turned into a dumping ground for German prisoners. Meanwhile, Karsten, a German POW who is mortified that he'd ordered his men to surrender, believes that only by escaping can he find redemption. Davies (Equal Love) uses the familiar tensions of WWII Britain to nice ensemble effect: among the more nuanced secondary characters is a British captain who is the son of a German-Jewish WWI hero-the man's father had always considered himself a Lutheran until the Nazi ascension forced him to flee Germany. As Esther begins to question her own allegiances, Karsten comes into her orbit. What makes this first novel by an award-winning short-storyteller an intriguing read isn't the plot-which doesn't quite go anywhere-but the beautifully realized characters, who learn that life is a jumble of difficult compromises best confronted with eyes wide open. (Feb. 12) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
A small village in North Wales is the setting for this story, which takes place right after D-Day. The impact of the war is felt by one family whose son is missing in action and by the entire town when they find that a POW camp that is being built nearby brings not only German prisoners but also their English captors. The local Welsh villagers have animosity toward both. Seventeen-year-old Esther Evans, working as a barmaid, is pursued by a village boy off to war and by a handsome English worker who uses her innocence to entrap her. Meanwhile, she, along with the other townspeople, especially the young boys, is drawn to the POW camp where she develops a rapport with a young German soldier who later escapes. Another plotline involves a German-Jewish interrogator who has been assigned to Rudolph Hess, who is also held prisoner. The story is a study of prejudice, nationalism, the effect of war on ordinary people and Welsh culture, which is especially highlighted in the pub scenes where many of the conflicting elements of the story come together. A Reader's Guide following the novel would assist teachers or students reading the book on their own to understand its underlying themes. Reviewer: Nola Theiss
Library Journal
This debut novel by an award-winning short story writer is set during World War II in northern Wales, where German POWs are held in a low-security prison. The intertwining stories involve a farm girl named Esther, who becomes pregnant after being raped by an English soldier; German POW Karsten, who is ashamed of surrendering in battle; and Jewish interrogator Rotheram, who is trying to refute captured Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess's claims of amnesia. From behind the prison fence, Karsten becomes friendly with Esther. He later escapes and hides at Esther's farm. Karsten and Esther share their fears, humiliation, and shame, which eventually leads to an affectionate sexual episode before Karsten gives himself up and returns to prison. The honesty of their short-lived relationship enables them to make life-accepting decisions about their own futures. In contrast, Rotheram witnesses Hess's denial of personal responsibility, which results in a long physical and spiritual imprisonment. The characters are heartfelt and real and events vividly and memorably described. Recommended for all collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/06.]-David A. Beron , Plymouth State Univ., NH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An unlikely World War II romance is the subject of this ambitious first novel from the Welsh-Malaysian author of the story collections The Ugliest House in the World (1997) and Unequal Love (2000). Following a prologue, in which British army officer Rotheram (son of a German Jewish war-hero-turned-pacifist) is assigned to interrogate captured Nazi officer Rudolf Hess, the scene shifts to a farming village in mountainous northern Wales. Davies gradually connects the shadow of the war to the experiences of teenaged barmaid Esther Evans, whose sheepherder father loudly proclaims his countrymen's ingrained distrust of all things English (including the war effort). Another narrative pattern emerges in the ordeal of Karsten Simmering, imprisoned in the POW camp the English army has built not far from the Evans farm, and guilt-ridden over his decision to persuade the soldiers under his command to surrender. Karsten's agonies of conscience are juxtaposed with the progress of Esther's maturing (she's raped by her boyfriend, a soldier in the British army, and shares the sufferings of the family who have lost their son Rhys-the decent man Esther might have married). The plots coalesce as Karsten escapes, hides in the Evans's barn and draws closer to Esther-with consequences that will compromise his "freedom" and alter her future. The story comes full circle as the completion of Rotheram's mission ironically confirms the likelihood that he, like so many others maimed and transformed by the war, belongs nowhere, and has no identity. The book is overlong and explains too much, but succeeds admirably in its presentation of engaging major characters, each of whom is given a complex and intriguingpersonal and family history. The result is a rich, moving explication of the ambiguities of duty and sacrifice, courage and perseverance. Not quite The English Patient, but a credible dramatization of a quality too seldom encountered in contemporary fiction: nobility.
From the Publisher
"Skilled, beautifully empathetic . . . Peter Ho Davies is a wonderful writer."—Andrea Barrett

"The Welsh Girl is a beautiful, ambitious novel . . . Emotionally resonant and perfectly rendered."—Ann Patchett

"This is a deeply felt, deeply imagined novel, and its characters remain a presence after the book is closed."—Stuart Dybek

"Deeply compelling and utterly uncompromising . . . each sentence is a pleasure. This book is a rare gem."—Claire Messud

"A memorable writer of sinewy intelligence."—David Mitchell

"What makes this first novel by an award-winning short-storyteller an intriguing read [is] the beautifully realized characters." Publishers Weekly

"The characters are heartfelt and real and events vividly and memorably described." Library Journal Starred

"A rich, moving explication of the ambiguities of duty and sacrifice, courage and perseverance." Kirkus Reviews

"This first novel by Davies . . . has been anticipated - and, with its wonderfully drawn characters, it has been worth the wait." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review

"An ambitious, layered meditation on what it means to be from a particular place...eloquent...Davies's achievement is significant."—Jennifer Egan The New York Times Book Review

"Distinguished, beautifully written . . . [a] quietly stirring book."—Richard Eder

The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618918522
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/14/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 349,436
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Ho Davies is on the faculty of the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan. His debut collection The Ugliest House in the World won the John Llewellyn Rhys and PEN/Macmillan awards in Britain. His second collection, Equal Love, was hailed by the New York Times Book Review for its 'stories as deep and clear as myth.' It was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a New York Times Notable Book. In 2003 Davies was named among the 'Best of Young British Novelists' by Granta. The Welsh GIrl is his first novel. The son of a Welsh father and Chinese mother, Davies was raised in England and spent his summers in Wales. He is married and has one son.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: September 1944

OUTSIDE, THE TECHNICOLOR sunset is giving way to the silvery sweep of
searchlights over distant Cardiff as a hand tugs the blackout curtain across
the sky. There's a scraping of chairs, then the snap of a switch as the
projector starts up. The room fills with the sharp chemical smell of acetate,
the ionized stink of scorched dust.

"Lights," Rotheram calls, and the lamps are extinguished. On the
makeshift screen — a bed sheet tacked to the wall, ironed creases still
visible — an image blooms, blurred at first, then twisted into focus. Clouds.
Wispy, cotton-wool clouds slide across the screen, and then the camera
dips beneath them, and there's the city, spread out like a map. The screen
fills with gothic script, Triumph des Willens, and beneath it in shaky
subtitles, Triumph of the Will.

The watching men flicker in the reflected light. They're seated in a
rough semicircle, a handful of dining chairs flanking a cracked leather
armchair. Only the armchair faces the screen squarely. The men in the dining
chairs are half turned from the film, looking back towards the projector, their
eyes narrowed against its glare, studying the figure at their center.

On the screen behind them, Adolf Hitler rides through the streets
of Nuremberg in an open car. Crowds throng the side of the road, arms
thrusting into the air, the salute rising and falling like a great wave. In the car
the Führer himself holds his arm up, not at the same sharp angle as the rest,
but tipped back at the wrist, fingers slightly arched, as if balancing a silver
salver.

The screen dissolves to a shot of Hitler on a podium as a battalion
of men, glinting spades on their shoulders, march past in powdery sunlight.
Beside and a little behind him on the stage is a severely handsome man,
slimmer and taller than the Führer. In the next scene, this same figure is at a
lectern, a glinting microphone before him, passionately exhorting the crowd.
His hand saws the air; a shining lock of hair falls across his brow. He ends
his speech crying "Sieg heil" over and over until the crowd rings with it.

The reel runs out, and as the film is being changed a hand
reaches out of the gloom and offers the figure in the armchair a cigarette. He
fumbles it out of the pack and bows his head to take a light. There is the
flash then flutter of flame, and in it his face is momentarily visible. Older,
gaunter, and more disheveled, it is still recognizably the man from the
screen: Rudolf Hess, former deputy führer of the Third Reich.


The film had been Rotheram's idea. He 'd seen it first in 1936 in Berlin, taking
a tram across town to a cinema in a district where he didn't think anyone
would know him, not telling his mother where he was going.

She had been pressing for them to leave Germany for months by
then, ever since his grandparents had fled to France the previous year. "But
they're Jewish," he 'd told her, as if she might have overlooked the fact. "It's
disgraceful how they've been hounded. But we aren't." His father, long dead,
had been, but his mother was the daughter of German Lutherans, who'd
settled in Canada and made a fortune in timber. They'd sent her back to the
motherland to study in Göttingen, where she 'd met his father in 1912. In the
eyes of Jews — the eyes of his father's family, say, who had spurned his
marriage and supported his son and widow only from a distance — Rotheram
wasn't one of them. Yet in the eyes of the Nazis he was. A mischling, at
least: a half-Jew.

He'd been dead set against leaving, even after seeing a fellow
beaten in the street. It had happened so fast: the slap of running feet, a man
rounding the corner, hand on his hat, chased by three others. Rotheram had
no idea what was going on even as the boots went in, and then it was over,
the thugs charging off, their victim curled on the wet cobbles. It was a busy
street and no one moved, just watched the man roll onto one knee, pause for
a moment, taking stock of his injuries, then pull himself to his feet and limp
hurriedly away, not looking at any of them. As if ashamed, Rotheram
thought. He'd barely realized what was happening, yet he felt as if he 'd
failed. Not a test of courage, not that, he told himself, but a test of
comprehension. He felt stupid standing there gawking like all the rest. Too
slow on the uptake to have time to fear for himself. When he told his mother,
she clutched his hand and made him promise not to get involved in such
things. He shook her off in disgust, repeated that he hadn't been afraid, but
she told him sharply, "You should have been."

So he had gone to see the film the next week, to prove
something. He arrived early and slipped into a seat towards the rear, hoping it
would be a small crowd, but by the time the main feature began the theater
was full. He sat through the first half hour, his shoulders hunched, his arms
crossed tightly to avoid any contact with the fellows sitting on either side of
him. They were with their girlfriends — it had been a mistake to sit near the
back — and when, after about ten minutes, the boy to his left started to kiss
his girl, Rotheram didn't know what was making him more uncomfortable, the
film or the couple. He was actually grateful when someone behind them
harrumphed loudly, "Show some respect." When twenty minutes later the
boy on his right tried something, Rotheram distinctly heard the girl slap the
fellow's hand away.

By then, though, he was caught up in the film, its ecstatic
pageantry. The fervent masses on the screen seemed to merge with the
crowd around him in the theater. It might have been the two couples flanking
him, but by the time the film was over he felt violently lonely. He wanted to
have even a bit part in this great drama, and for a brief while in the darkened
cinema, invisible in his seat, he felt as if he did. But then the lights came up
and he hurried out, panicked by the sudden piercing thought that, if he could,
he would want nothing more than to join the Nazis. In his haste, he trod on
the toes of one of the girls, fleeing before he could apologize, fleeing from her
little hiss of anger, her pointing finger. Outside, he must have run half a mile,
feeling as if the crowd were at his back, ready to kill him for stepping on
some girl's toes.

That was the day he realized he and his mother would have to
leave.

It was her old Canadian connections that made it possible for them to come
to England. Rotheram wondered what his father, killed at Verdun, would have
made of that. Conceived in 1915 during his father's last leave, Rotheram had
never met the man, although he still kept his frayed campaign ribbons
pressed in his wallet, as proud of them as he was ashamed of having run
from Germany.

He'd shown them, with a kind of shy defiance, to Colonel Hawkins
one night in 1941, shortly after he 'd been seconded to the Political
Intelligence Division as a document translator.

"Ypres?" The old man had whistled in admiration, pointing to one
decoration. "Lord, we might have traded potshots. Staunch soldiers, those
fellows. Took everything we threw at them."

Rotheram's mother had been killed in the Blitz months earlier, and
it was the first time he 'd talked about his father to anyone since.

"Neither fish nor fowl, eh?" Hawkins said when he told him his
background, and Rotheram nodded. He still wasn't sure what he could call
himself — not German, not Jewish — but serving under the CO, he 'd felt for
the first time as if he weren't running from something, but being led
somewhere.

Back in 1941, the war had seemed as good as lost, the papers
filled with defeats, yet Hawkins was winning small victories every few days
across the interrogation table. The first story Rotheram heard about him was
how he once questioned a suspected spy for thirteen hours straight, cracking
him in the end only when he told the man he was free to go — told him in
German, that is — and saw the fellow's shoulders sag in relief. Hawkins
made winning the war seem a matter of wit and will, and Rotheram had been
thrilled when the CO personally selected him from the translation pool to sit
in on interrogations. Hawkins spoke excellent German himself, of course —
he made Rotheram self-conscious of his own accented English — but he
didn't always want to let on to the prisoners. "Helps sometimes to let them
think they know more than me." It was a tactic he 'd learned from his days as
a journalist between the wars. Springing his German on them when they
weren't expecting it was one of his simpler tricks.

Over the months they came up with other stunts. A couple of
times, Hawkins had Rotheram translate so sloppily that the infuriated
prisoners lost patience and broke into English themselves. Later, he began
leaving Rotheram alone with a prisoner, stepping out to the WC while
Rotheram offered the man a cigarette, warned him what Hawkins was
capable of, advised him to talk: "It's nothing to be ashamed of; anyone
would." He posed as a British student of German literature, professed an
affinity for things German. "You've a talent for sympathy," Hawkins told him.

In truth Rotheram despised the prisoners, loved to see Hawkins
break them. Once, they'd reversed the roles — boredom, as much as
anything, dictating their tactics — and Hawkins had played the sympathetic
one, hamming it up so much Rotheram thought he was being mocked. He
listened from behind the door as Hawkins offered the prisoner a smoke,
warned him that Rotheram was a German Jew, implacable in his desire for
revenge. The man had talked even before Rotheram returned to the room.
He'd felt a stark thrill, but afterwards, in Hawkins's office, he told him, again,
that he wasn't a Jew, and Hawkins eyed him carefully and said, "I know, old
boy, I know. It was just a ruse. No offense intended."

"None taken," Rotheram told him. "Why do you think he believed it
though?"

And Hawkins said, "The reason most men believe anything. He
was scared it was true."

Rotheram had laughed. He couldn't say if loyalty to one man
could grow into patriotism, but the harder he worked for Hawkins, the more
suspects he questioned, the more British he felt.

Still, by the late summer of 1944, there were fewer and fewer
prisoners at the London Cage, and Rotheram was missing the interrogations,
missing the war, really. He'd been agitating for a transfer for a month. Quayle
and his gang had moved across the Channel in late July; most of the
questioning was being done in Cherbourg or by roving teams at the front.
According to Hawkins, it was a miserable detail, France or no. So many men
surrendering, hundreds a day — it was nothing but paperwork. "Besides, I
need you here, dear boy, to help put the jigsaw together." They were
beginning to identify defendants and witnesses for the prospective war crimes
trials. The pieces of the puzzle. Rotheram had nodded and gone back to the
dry work of processing the boxloads of interrogation reports coming in from
Normandy.

There wasn't even much doing at Dover by then. In June and July,
in the wake of D-day, he 'd been used to heading down there two or three
times a week, to the old racetrack where the POWs were processed, for
a "chat," as they called it, with the more interesting and recalcitrant cases.
Once or twice he persuaded the local MPs to give him a captured uniform
and put him in with the unprocessed men to eavesdrop. He'd been shocked
by the thrill of it — playing with fire, he 'd thought — delighted in calling
himself "Steiner." He'd gotten results, too, bagged a handful of officers posing
as noncoms. By mid- August, the Allies closing in on Paris, he 'd begged
permission to make another visit to Dover, and tried the stunt again, but he
must have seemed overeager. He'd been rumbled, had a rib broken before the
guards could get to him.

Hawkins was furious when he heard about it. "Why would you
take such an idiotic risk? Seriously, what do you think you were playing at?"

Rotheram shrugged. "I was going round the bend, sir. And now
with Paris liberated . . ." The news had broken two days earlier. "Sometimes
it feels like I'm the bloody prisoner here."

Hawkins smiled thinly.

"Then you should be able to fake it better. How did they spot you,
by the way?"

"Lice," Rotheram said, making a face. "I didn't have any. They saw
I wasn't scratching."

The other shook his head.

"And how's the rib?"

"Sore, but I can work."

"All right. You want some excitement, then?"

"Sir?"

Hawkins began writing out a chit on his blotter, and Rotheram felt
a surge of excitement. Paris!

"I'm giving you a staff car, sending you on a little trip. You're off to
Wales, my boy."

"Wales?" It sounded like a joke. "With respect, sir, I want to go
east, not west."

"Think of it as a little holiday," the CO said drolly. "You're going to
see Hess."

Rotheram paused, watching Hawkins's pen twitch across the
page.

"Rudolf Hess?"

"No, Rudolph ruddy Reindeer. Who do you think?"

Rotheram had seen Hess once before, in Germany, in '35. The
only one of the party leaders he 'd ever glimpsed in person. It was at a
football match. Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen. Hess had arrived with
his entourage a little after kickoff. There'd been a popping of flashbulbs, a
stirring in the crowd, and then the referee had blown the whistle and stopped
the game for the players to give the Heil Hitler. Hess had returned the salute
smartly and gone back to signing autographs. He'd been deputy führer then,
a post he 'd held until 1941 when he'd flown to Britain. It had been a
sensation at the time — was he a traitor? was he on a secret mission? —
but now Hess was almost an afterthought.

"Even if he has any secrets left they'd be old hat," Rotheram
observed.

"He still has at least one, apparently," the CO said, placing the
travel orders on top of a thick file. "We don't know if he 's sane or not. He 's
tried to kill himself a couple of times, and he 's been claiming selective
amnesia for years. Says he has no recollection of anything important. Not of
his mission, not of the war. It's all a fog, supposedly."

"He's acting?"

"If so, he 's doing a splendid job. He's been maintaining the same
story pretty much since landing in Scotland."

Rotheram looked at the file on the desk between them, the dog-
eared pages bound together with ribbon.

"What makes you think I'll be able to crack him?"

"Not sure you will, my boy. Plenty of others have had a go.

Medics, intel bods. The Americans."

"But you don't trust them."

The CO sighed. "Hess is the biggest name we have so far, and if
there 's a trial when this is all over, he 's likely to be a star in it. Only not if
he 's gaga. Not if he 's unbalanced, you follow? It'll make a mockery.
Problem is, if we don't put him up, it'll smell fishy to the Soviets. They're
convinced he came here to conclude a peace between us and the Nazis to
leave them free to concentrate in the East." Hawkins shook his head. "The
one thing for sure is if he does end up in the dock, we'll be the buggers
building the case. I just want someone I know to have a look-see."

"This isn't exactly what I had in mind when I asked for a transfer."

" 'In which we serve,' dear boy," the CO told him with a
shrug. "You're going up the wall, so I'm giving you something." He smiled,
then craned forward again. "You want a role in the trials? You want to play a
part in that? Well, this is the beginning. Do this right and you might do
yourself some good."

It had been damp and overcast in London — Rotheram needed to let out the
choke to get the car started — but by Cheltenham it was warm enough to roll
his windows down, and motoring through the Marches into Wales, he found
himself lifted by the rippling emerald country, the bright broad skies, so
different from the narrow greyness of London.

Still, climbing into the Black Mountains felt like crossing into
autumn. Fat drops of rain splattered the windscreen, and by the time he
arrived, the metal of the film canisters was cold enough to sting his fingers as
he carried them in from the car. He walked up the gravel drive to the manor
house, remembering something Hawkins had once told him, that the gentry
had put in gravel to announce their visitors. He had a moment to take in the
ivy-bearded brick, the leaded windows crosshatched a second time with
safety tape, and then he heard the bolt draw back on the heavy oak door.

"Ah," the pinch-faced lieutenant who met him declared, "I see
you've brought our feature presentation."

The lieutenant, a doctor in the RAMC who introduced himself only
as Mills, showed him into the parlor, where a projector had been set
up. "You've eaten already?" he asked brusquely, but Rotheram shook his
head. There'd been only a meager ploughman's at a sullen pub outside
Cirencester. The doctor looked disconcerted. "Well, look, not to be
inhospitable, but could you possibly wait? Unless you're ravenous, I mean.
Only, he's an early riser, so if you want to show it this evening, best start
soon." He smiled apologetically. "Can't promise he won't nod off, otherwise."

"It's fine." Rotheram began loading the film. His fingers were so
chilled they trembled, and it took him long minutes to thread the first reel
through the sprockets.

"Nervous?" Mills asked.

"Cold," Rotheram said, rubbing his fingers. "Those will have to be
turned," he added, indicating the neat row of chairs and making a circling
gesture, "so we can watch him."

"Right you are," the other replied agreeably enough, although
Rotheram noticed he didn't offer to light the fire in the grate.

Finally the film was ready, and Rotheram ran it forward for a few
seconds, watching the test numbers flicker and count down, and then the
opening shots from a plane descending over the city, the image ghostly in
the still-bright room.

"Action," Mills called jauntily.

Rotheram snapped the machine into reverse and the camera lifted
back through the wispy clouds, the medieval rooftops dwindling, the
soundtrack discordant and garbled. He 'd tracked down the print at the
censor's office — they'd impounded half a dozen copies at the start of the
war — and he'd run it for himself the night before in his office, to make sure it
was whole and to refamiliarize himself. He 'd waited until everyone had left for
the evening, afraid of being caught, as if it were pornography.

"All right," he said, and Mills opened the door.

Someone must have been waiting for the signal, for less than a
minute later there were footsteps in the passage outside.

Rotheram expected a guard to come first, but it was Hess
himself, stepping into the drawing room as if it were his home. He was
greying and more drawn than Rotheram recalled from his pictures, his nose
as sharp as a beak and his cheekbones swept up like wings under his skin,
as if his face were about to take flight. Out of uniform, in a navy blue
cardigan, darned at one elbow, he seemed stooped, retired, more a shy
uncle than the fiery deputy führer. His shirt was pressed and buttoned to the
throat, but he wore no tie, and Rotheram recalled he 'd made two suicide
attempts, according to the file: once opening his veins with a butter knife he
had stolen and sharpened on an iron bedstead; a second time hurdling a third-
story banister. He was limping from that fall still, as he approached and held
out his hand. Rotheram stared at it, slowly held out his own, but to one side,
gesturing to the armchair. Hess ignored the insult, taking his place with only
a wry "Vielen Dank," to which Rotheram found himself automatically
mumbling, "Bitte."

Two burly MP corporals followed Hess into the room, one taking a
seat flanking him, the other carrying a salver with decanter and glasses,
which he set on the sideboard. Last through the door was a delicate-featured
officer whom Mills ushered over and introduced as Major Redgrave.

"Captain. I gather we have you to thank for the evening's
entertainment."

"I hope it'll be more than that, sir."

"You've seen it already?"

Rotheram nodded, though he didn't say where.

The corporal appeared at his elbow, proffering glasses.

"Scotch, sirs?"

"And how do you propose to manage this?" Redgrave asked softly
when they all had drinks.

"I'll run the film, observe his reactions, debrief him afterwards."

"You think you'll know if he 's lying?"

Rotheram watched the corporal bend down beside Hess and offer
him the last glass on the salver.

"I hope so. There are signs to look for."

Redgrave exchanged a glance with Mills. "You know we've tried
pretty much everything. Over the years." He said it gently and without
impatience, and it occurred to Rotheram that it was meant to comfort him,
that they expected him to fail.

"Yes, sir."

"Very well, then. Can't hurt to try. Whenever you're ready."

Redgrave took a seat halfway between the screen and Hess,
lowering himself stiffly, tugging up his trouser legs by the creases. Hess
smiled at him questioningly, but the major just shrugged. Rotheram motioned
Mills to draw the blackout curtain against the sunset, then threw the switch
and took a seat across from the lieutenant and the major, studying the man
in the armchair.

Back in London, the CO had offered Rotheram this job as if it were
a plum, but until this moment he had felt like little more than a glorified
delivery boy. Now here was Hess, one of the leading men of the party, right in
front of him. And it occurred to Rotheram, stealing a glance at the screen,
that the last time Hess had been in prison was after the Munich Putsch. He'd
been Hitler's cellmate. He 'd taken dictation of Mein Kampf.

Initially, Hess seemed entertained, watching the stately
procession of staff cars, the pageantry. It was a captivating film, Rotheram
knew, queasily fascinating in the way it made the ugly beautiful. He could
see the two corporals were rapt, one of them moving his mouth to read the
subtitles, and Mills and Redgrave kept swiveling their heads back and forth
between the screen and Hess as if at a tennis match. But it was no effort for
Rotheram to keep his eyes on the prisoner. The whole scene, since Hess
had entered the room, seemed unreal. He couldn't quite believe he was in the
man's presence, like the night he thought he glimpsed Marlene Dietrich
getting into a taxi in Leicester Square but afterwards could never be
absolutely sure. If he took his eyes off Hess, he thought the man would
disappear.

Hess himself watched with interest, but without comment, sipping
his whisky, his foot occasionally keeping time with the music. Only once did
Rotheram notice the man's gaze drifting towards him, then flicking away
almost coyly. At the first reel change, he seemed inclined to talk, started to
lean forward, but Rotheram, wanting to keep the film moving, busied himself
with the projector. Hess accepted a cigarette from Mills, and the major asked
him if he knew what he was watching, and he said yes, yes, of course. He
recognized Herr Hitler; he understood that this was Germany before the war.
He said he admired the marching. But when Redgrave asked if he
remembered being there, Hess looked puzzled and shook his head.

"Your English is good," Rotheram called from where he was bent
over the projector. He didn't like the others asking too many questions.

"Thank you," Hess told him. "Und Ihr Deutsch."

Rotheram looked up and a loop of film slipped off the reel he was
removing, swinging loose.

"I only meant you do not seem to need the subtitles, Captain."

Rotheram recoiled the film tightly.

"But perhaps I should be complimenting you on your English
instead."

Mills barked out a little laugh and then looked puzzled. "I'm not
sure I get it."

"It's not a joke," Hess said pleasantly. "I'm asking if Captain Roth-
eram" — he drew the name out — "is a German Jew."

Rotheram felt the others turning to look at him, the major sitting
up straighter. He kept his eyes on Hess but felt himself coloring in the gloom.

"Well," Mills said. "I'd never have guessed."

"You have to know what to look for," Hess said nonchalantly, as if
it were a parlor trick.

"But Jews can't be German, Deputy Reichsführer," Rotheram told
him flatly. "Or did you forget that also?"

Hess's lips twitched, a small moue.

"Besides, you're wrong." But even as he said it, Rotheram was
conscious of his accent asserting itself, as it did when he was tired or angry.

"My mistake, I'm sure."

"Captain," the major called wearily. "Let's press on, shall we?"

The second reel moved to the evening events of the 1934 Reich Party Day, a
grainy sea of flags waving in a torch-lit parade, and finally to footage of Hess
himself, starkly pale under the floodlights, rallying the crowd, leading the
ovation until his voice cracked with the effort. In the drawing room, Rotheram
watched Hess closely, saw him flinch slightly, his nostrils flaring as his
younger face stared down at him. His eyes, beneath his bushy brows,
widened as he watched, and he seemed to clutch himself, his crossed arms
drawing tighter, his leg hitched higher on his thigh. The tip of his cigarette
glowed in the dark, and the smoke twisted up through the projector's beam
like a spirit. At the next break, he called for some light and said he needed to
stretch his legs. He rose and walked twice around the room quickly, his limp
jagged, his head bent.

Mills tried to join him. "Are you cold?" But Hess waved him away,
and the doctor approached Rotheram instead.

"How much longer?"

"One more reel."

"Good. I don't want him too agitated."

Rotheram looked up. "Isn't that the point?"

"It's your point, my friend. My job's to keep him healthy. I don't
want him stressed or overtired."

"I understood —"

"You understood wrong," Mills hissed. "And don't be thinking you
can go around my back to the old man. He and I have an understanding."

Rotheram looked up and saw the major watching.

"Do you mind?" he asked Mills steadily. "I'd like to start this."

Mills turned and motioned curtly for one of the corporals to light a
fire. There was a clatter of coal from the scuttle, and for a few seconds they
all watched as the flame caught.

The final reel showed Hitler addressing the crowd, and Hess sank
against the seat cushions as if he were trying to smother himself in the chair.
Rotheram, glancing round, noticed Redgrave and Mills thoroughly engrossed
in the film, intent on the younger Hess, the one formed from shadow and
light. Turning back, he found Hess studying him. Their eyes met for a
moment — Hess's dark, but shining — before Rotheram had to look away,
his heart racing, as if the figure on the screen had met his gaze.

Afterwards, pacing the room once more, Hess repeated that yes,
of course he recognized himself in the film, so he must accept that he had
been there. Yet he had no memory of the events depicted. He touched the
side of his head with his fingertips as if it were tender. "All that is black to
me."

"No memory?" Rotheram asked. "None at all? And yet you seem
agitated. Disturbed." The room was very still now without the tick and whir of
the projector.

"I wouldn't say so. Troubled, perhaps."

"Troubled, very well. Why?"

"Troubled that I can't remember, of course. How would you feel if
you were shown and told things you had done that you had no memory of? It
is as if my life has been taken from me.

That man was me, but also like an actor playing me."

Hess sniffed. The chimney was drawing poorly. Mills raked
through the coals with the poker, making them spit.

"Do you even want to remember?" Rotheram asked.

"Natürlich. A man is his memories, no? Besides, I'm told the tide
has turned. Paris fallen? Germany facing defeat? I should like such
memories of happier times."

"The film made you happy, then? You enjoyed it?"

"Not happy!" Hess cried. He raised his hands in frustration, let
them drop with a sigh. "But you are trying to provoke me."

There was a moment's silence, and then Mills said, "You must be
tired."

"Yes," Redgrave added. "Perhaps it would be best if we conclude
this evening, turn in."

"Major," Rotheram began, but when he looked at Redgrave 's
hangdog face, he stopped. He had been about to say that this was his
interrogation, but it occurred to him suddenly that Mills was right. As far as
he and the major were concerned, it was no interrogation at all. It wasn't that
they thought Rotheram couldn't determine whether Hess was mad or not;
they thought it was irrelevant. That unless Hess was raving or foaming at the
mouth, he'd be put on trial. They believed the decision had already been
taken. That was why they couldn't see any point in this. It was a sham in
their eyes and, worse, to continue it a cruelty.

They expect me to find him fit, Rotheram thought, because they
believe I'm a Jew.

He became aware that Redgrave and Mills were staring at him,
waiting.

"I suppose I am finished," he muttered.

Only Hess was not. He was standing at the pier glass scrutinizing
his own reflection. Turning his head from side to side to study his face.

He ran a hand through his lank hair, held it off his brow. "Another
thing I don't remember: growing old." He smiled bleakly at them in the narrow
mirror.

Rotheram spent a restless night in his bare cell of a room — the former
servants' quarters, he guessed, up a narrow flight of stairs at the back of the
house.

It was all so unreasonable, he thought. He 'd been brought up,
nominally at least, Lutheran, his mother's faith; knew next to nothing about
Judaism. In truth, he 'd always resented his grandparents, refusing to write
the thank-you letters his mother asked him to send in reply to their
begrudging gifts, and he 'd been secretly pleased when they'd fled to Paris,
as if this proved something. Even when, two months after they'd left, his
father's pension had been stopped, Rotheram had been convinced it was
simply a mistake. The Nazi bureaucrats were just fools, too dense to
understand a subtle distinction like matrilineal descent, something his
mother had explained to him in childhood. He was in his second year of law
at the university, but when he tried to register for classes the following term,
he was told he wasn't eligible to matriculate and realized he was the fool. It
made him think of an occasion years before, when, as a boy of thirteen or
fourteen, he 'd asked his mother yet again why he wasn't Jewish if his father
was. Because the Jewish line runs through the mother, she 'd told him. Yes,
but why? he pressed, and she explained, a little exasperated, that she
supposed it was because you could only be absolutely sure who your mother
was, not your father. He went away and thought about that — deeply and
narrowly, as a child will — and finally came back to her and asked if she was
sure his father was his father. She 'd stared at him for a long moment, then
slapped him hard across the mouth. "That sure," she said.

Just before her death, she told him how she'd been spat on in the
streets of Berlin in 1919. "After Versailles," she said. "Because I was
Canadian. That's what your grandparents could never forgive. I was a
reminder of the enemy who'd killed their son. I wasn't German enough for
them, you see?"

Among her possessions, after her funeral, he 'd found a
photograph of his father he 'd never seen before. It must have been taken on
that last leave because he looked gaunt, his tunic loose on his frame, his
features sharpened almost to caricature, no longer the smiling, slightly plump
figure in a close-fitting uniform that Rotheram had seen in earlier poses. This
was his father, he thought, and the figure had seemed to rebuke him.

And yet the following week he'd gone ahead and Anglicized his
name.


He looked at his watch — not quite one a.m. — and decided to try the CO.
Hawkins was an insomniac — his own sleep ruined by so many round-the-
clock interrogations — and often spent nights at his desk catching up on
paperwork. Sure enough, he picked up on the second ring, sounding more
alert than the sleepy operator who put Rotheram's call through.

Barefoot, greatcoat over his pajamas, Rotheram huddled over the
phone in the drafty hall and said he was ready to head back to London.

"You've made up your mind about Hess? That was quick."

Rotheram hesitated, stared at some movement down the hall,
realized it was his own reflection in a mirror.

"Not really."

"What? Speak up."

"No, sir," Rotheram enunciated. He cupped his hand around the
mouthpiece, conscious of the stillness of the house around him. "I'm just not
sure I'll be able to, under the circumstances."

"So spend some more time. Take another run at him."

"I don't think that'll do any good," Rotheram offered.

"But why, for heaven's sake?" Hawkins seemed to be shouting in
the quiet of the hallway.

And Rotheram was forced to admit that he was reluctant to find
Hess sane because the thought of confirming Redgrave and Mills's
assumptions rankled.

"Let me get this straight," the CO said. "You believe you can judge
Hess fairly, but you're concerned that others won't see that judgment as
impartial because they think you're Jewish.

Those are the horns of your dilemma?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, but do you ever think you might not be so impartial after
all?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Rotheram said tightly. "Even if I were Jewish, I'm
not sure why it should make me any less impartial than a Frenchman or a
Russian."

He heard Hawkins take a sip of something, and then another.
Finally he asked, "Tell me, my boy, honestly now, don't you ever think about
your family? Your grandparents made for Paris, you say. Don't you wonder
where they are, what's become of them?"

Rotheram was momentarily taken aback. He began to say no and
stopped, unsure. Hawkins had taught him to recognize the pause before
answering as a lie. It came to Rotheram that whatever he said now would
seem false. So he was silent, which as Hawkins had taught him might mean
a man was holding something back, or simply that he didn't know.

"I'm sorry, sir," he whispered now. "You'll have my report Monday
morning."

There was a long sigh at the other end of the line, and Rotheram
felt how he'd failed Hawkins. But when the CO spoke again he sounded
brusquely hearty.

"No need to hurry back, my boy. There've been some new orders,
as a matter of fact. The POW department want someone to visit their camps
up in North Wales. Something to do with screening and the reeducation
program. Denazification and all that. Thought you'd be just the fellow to
liaise. Anyhow, the orders should catch up with you there later today, or
tomorrow at the latest."

"What — ?" Rotheram began, and stopped, silenced by the sound
of his own cry in the still house as much as by Hawkins's steely jocularity.

Gripping the receiver, Rotheram told him stiffly that he understood,
and he did, although dully, as if his head were still ringing from the blow. The
CO had been flattering him with this mission, he realized; more than that, it
was a consolation prize. The decision had already been made, but not by
Rotheram. Hess would be going to the trial, but Rotheram wouldn't. The
closest he'd come to Germany, any time soon, was the image on the screen.

"You will be missed," Hawkins said. He was the one whispering
now. "It's just that there 's a sense that Jews ought not to be a big part of the
process. To keep everything aboveboard, so to speak. To avoid its looking
like revenge. Can't stick a thumb on the scales of justice and all that. And
really, that stunt at Dover." He laughed ruefully. "That's what you get for
playing silly buggers."

Rotheram was silent and the CO filled the pause by asking, "By
the way, how is Rudi, the old bastard?"

"Probably as sane as you or I," Rotheram said, and Hawkins
laughed again.

"Well, that's not saying much, dear boy. That's not saying very
much at all."

Rotheram held the receiver long after it had gone dead, reassured by the
weight in his hand, until he heard a floorboard creak overhead, and finally set
it gently back in its cradle. He wondered who else might be awake, whom he
might have woken. Hess's room was on the second floor, and suddenly he
hoped the Nazi might appear, escaping, any excuse for Rotheram to take
him by the throat. On the landing, he peered down the corridor. There was
Hess's guard, the corporal who'd served them Scotch, slumped in his chair,
giving off a series of soft, flaring snores. Rotheram only meant to wake him,
but as he stood before the guard, it seemed as easy to step over his
outstretched legs and lay an ear to the door.

Nothing. Rotheram wondered if he was listening to an empty
room, if Hess had already fled (but no, the key was still in the lock) or thrown
himself from his window (surely it was barred).

Still nothing, except Rotheram's own pulse, like a wingbeat in his
ears. Perhaps all he 'd heard before was a particularly stentorian snore from
the corporal. And yet he couldn't quite shake the conviction that the room
was empty — not as if Hess had left it, precisely, but as if he 'd never been
there. Rotheram must have leaned closer, shifted his weight, for the floor
beneath him gave a dry groan. He stifled his breath, counted the seconds.

Nothing stirred, and yet the silence seemed subtly altered now,
the silence of another listener, as if Hess were behind the door or under the
covers or crouched in a corner listening to him, Rotheram, wondering about
his intentions.

Rotheram felt his legs start to tremble, as if a chill had risen from
the cold floor through his bare feet, and he stepped away. He was halfway to
the stairs before he thought to turn back and aim a kick at the sleeping
corporal.

Copyright © 2007 by Peter Ho Davies. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 38 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(15)

4 Star

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3 Star

(5)

2 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2007

    Engaging Historical Novel!

    When I picked up Peter Davies' novel, 'The Welsh Girl' I knew right away that this was the book for me. I've always been interested in Celtic and Welsh folklore and heritage, as well as a general interest in WWII. This semi-historical fiction, part love story gives a vivid view into the lives of young German soldiers, as well as depicting the life of Welshmen in a small Welsh town and their lives as sheepfarmers and pubowners. The story centers around the struggles and courage of the characters through the late 1940's. The descriptions are fresh and beautiful. Peter Davies keeps you on your toes with an unpredictable plot up until the end. I fell in love with the conflicts, struggles and victories of the characters and did not want to put this book down! I reccommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical or cultural history and passionate characters!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    Very good.

    I enjoyed this book very much. Loved the historical feel of it. I found the main character a little hard to warm up to. She seemed a little short of emotion, but all in all it was well worth the read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I have never read a war novel before, but this book has me wanting to read more of them......

    This novel is a little slow to start, but it picks up really fast midway and then you cannot put it down until you finish. I was not prepared for the rape that happens in the very beginning of the novel, but he doesnt go into too much detail about that, you just know it happened. That was really my only dislike of the novel and I still strongly recommend it.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2008

    one of the most moving stories I have read in years

    This story of a Welsh girl, a German POW, and the complicated social strictures of small-town life during World War II is one of the most moving stories I have read in years. In prose that is simple in the way that the best poetry often is, Peter Ho Davies delivers Wales in evocative detail, and the feelings of his Welsh and English and German characters, male and female, as if he were each of them. The passage in chapter 13, with Karsten and Jim and the plane, is just lovely. Just lovely.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Explore

    The book does not cover new ground, but it does explore how Wales was involved in WWll. I found that interesting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2008

    Peter Davies has written a mesmerizng, thought provoking novel.

    Peter Davies has written a mesmerizng, thought provoking novel. The story comes full circle as the completion of Rotheram's mission ironically confirms the likelihood that he, like so many others maimed and transformed by the war, belongs nowhere, and has no identity. The book is overlong and explains too much, but succeeds admirably in its presentation of engaging major characters, each of whom is given a complex and intriguingpersonal and family history.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 23, 2012

    Fun for a history buff

    I read this on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The story is interesting and moves along nicely. It would be a great summer read for anyone interested in WWII or Wales. I also enjoyed the fact that part of the story is told from the point of view of German POWs.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 11, 2010

    Beautifully written

    Compelling in a very essential kind of way, the story of a German soldier and a Welsh girl, each gripped by their own unique desperation, each shaped by their individual surrender, and drawn to each other by their human compassion. Beautifully written, I found myself frequently stopping at the end of a sentence with appreciation for the author's shaping of the words and thoughts.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    A Really Nice Book

    This is a lovely little book about conflicting loyalties. It portrays so well the attitudes of the Welsh during WWII, who were more anti-Britain because of the way their country had been mistreated historically than patriotic. The Jewish military investigator is also handled so well. For once a writer of an historical novel makes small tweaks with real events that are not obtrusive nor silly.

    I thought about the heroine for days after I finished--a rare tribute to the strength of a book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 6, 2009

    Better if you've been to Wales.

    If you enjoy historical fiction and/or are looking for a different setting, this is an engaging read. Well known and common folk are intermingled during WW II. Human vulnerabilities are exposed,through the prisoners of war, their jailers, lovers, and mothers. The strength and convictions of the Welsh people, their fierce pride and nationalism emerge with the Nazi regime as a backdrop.
    Reading this during a recent visit to Wales was very worthwhile.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Don't expect the story to be like the description.

    I enjoyed this book but was a little disappointed. The source of the my disappointment is the description of the story on the back cover of the book was misleading. My advice is to read the book without expecting it to follow that description and you won't find the book wanting. Otherwise it was still a good story and I would have no problems recommending it to friends.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2007

    MUCH RECOMMENDED!

    A friend recommended this book to me and I enjoyed it a lot. It has the detailed imagery of a classical movie. It tells about the bond between a German soldier, a prisoner of war, and a welsh girl, searching for meaning in her life. Set during WWII, Part-history and part-fiction, this story could really open your eyes to the world and everything around you, and help you appreciate the simple things in life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Elise's Application

    Aimee Orlando. Neighbor to the Starkwaters. She's very punk, tough until you get to know her. Her hair is black with white streaks that she dyes with spray color a different color every day. She has bright blue eyes. Her mom is a weird teenage mom too-always is dr<_>unk. She has a little emerald on a necklace she won't explain to anyone. She likes to skateboard and usually wears high-tops, jeans, and an elbow-length sleeved shirt with a cropped sleeve leather jacket and fingerless gloves.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Character application: jenna

    (this should fit into your supernatural category) name: Jenna Celian. Age: 16 gender: female. Desc: she has long black hair, usually in a ponytail and with randomly dyed tips that he usually changes every week, skin on the pale side, but not overly so, electric blue eyes, angular features, usually wears tshirts, blue skinny jeans and her signature sky blue converse, but ha been known to change things up every now and then. Other: she occasionally gets flashes of the future, often which make her pass out(im thinking once a week, but increases as the story progresses. But really depends how long the story is) if theres anything else you need, just ask.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2014

    Malta

    Okay. I will take bith of those and one more that the next person posts. Then only fantasy creatures will be open for applicaions and I will take two of those.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2014

    Draggy

    Just couldn't get into this book. Even though I read 3/4 of it, I just quit. That's unusual for me, because I'll finish a book in most cases no matter what. I just couldn't. Would not recommend it at all.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2008

    horrible

    I was very dissapointed in this novel! the historical aspects were highly accurate, although the romance was very weak. Also, there were alot of irrelevant characters that served no real purpose. I was just very disapointed.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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