Peter Ho Davies was born in 1966 to Welsh and Chinese parents.
He has degrees in Physics and English, and was awarded an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He has worked in Malaysia, Singapore, and the USA, and was also, for a time, UK business manager for Varsity. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, and his short fiction is widely anthologised, including selections for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 1998 and Best American Short Stories 1995, 1996 and 2001. His own first published collection of short stories was The Ugliest House in the World (1998), which contains tales set in Malaysia, South Africa and Patagonia. This collection won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second collection, Equal Love, was published in 2000.
Peter Ho Davies lives in the United States and directs the MFA Programme in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. He is a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In 2003, he was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists'.
His first novel, The Welsh Girl, set in a Welsh village during the second world war, was published in 2007.
As an English resident of the United States of America, who was born to Chinese and Welsh parents, there must, inevitably, be something of the outsider to Peter Ho Davies’ experience of life. No surprise, then, that the writer’s two collections of short stories, The Ugliest House in the World (1998) and Equal Love (2000), and his novel The Welsh Girl (2007), should reveal an interest in what happens when you find that you are, in some way, unable to fully occupy your relationships with people or places.
Ho Davies’ writing privileges emotional depth over formal experimentation. It is clear and direct, relying upon the carefully understated sentence and the way in which we infer meaning from silences and the things left unsaid. In ‘On the Terraces’, from Equal Love, a man keeps vigil by the bedside of his brother, who is dying of AIDS. ‘Every few minutes I try to look up to see if he’s awake. I watch the circles of condensation bloom and fade against his condensation mask, and then go back to my paper.’ The verbs ‘bloom’ and ‘fade’ convey with economy, a sense of the brief burst of life, but the reader is brought up short with the abruptness of the next phrase: the brother goes back to his paper, gets on with an everyday activity. Things continue, no matter what. We feel that the brother is acting out of a sense of duty, wherein there is probably love, of a sort, but a love which is indistinguishable from responsibility. Ho Davies is interested in the accommodations which must be made in the name of love, and the way in which it binds us in both the negative and positive senses of that verb.
The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love are also impressive for their temporal, geographical and emotional range: the reader is taken from modern-day Chinatown in San Francisco to a Welsh slate quarry at the end of the nineteenth century; from the Malaysian jungle in the 1940s to 1960s New Hampshire. That these worlds convince, and are evoked with a depth of feeling unfashionable in modern literature, is Ho Davies’ triumph. These stories are free of cynicism, which makes the experience of reading them novel when the cynical is the default emotional setting of the contemporary imagination.
The author’s ability to occupy the psychology of characters whose experience is, presumably, far removed from his own, is also striking: a heroin addict attempting to win back custody of her son in ‘Everything You Can Remember in Thirty Seconds is Yours to Keep’; a young girl hoping to find a new love for her divorced father in ‘Brave Girl’; a lieutenant in the Boer War suffering from flatulence during an officers’ dinner in ‘Relief’; a middle-aged man working for a helpline that specialises in dealing with potential suicides in ‘I Don’t Know, What Do You Think?’
The second collection of stories, Equal Love, focuses on the unequal relationship between parents and children, in which games of power, responsibility and affection are played. It is about the search for connection, the need for emotional reciprocity, the complexity of sentimental ties. There is still the same impressive range of subject matter and voices, yet there is a more pronounced sense of purpose. There are stories about the bonds and ties of parental love: ‘The Hull Case’ deals with a couple who cannot have children; ‘Small World’ with the impending arrival of a child; ‘Frogmen’ with the consequences of the death of one. There is also a treatment of the ebb and flow of power across the generations. The title story examines the relationship between two friends who, on the point of committing adultery, observe their respective son and daughter kissing; with a simple, ‘oh well’ and a pat on the back, they think better of what they have been about to do and go to meet their ‘glowing, lying children.’ Equal Love improves upon Ho Davies’ first book without any transformation in the author’s style. It has grace, warmth and humour, and, even at its bleakest moments, the power to make the reader believe in the need for compassion and understanding, especially when those qualities are being tested and undermined.
‘Today is Sunday’, from Equal Love, began life as a novel, before becoming an eight-page reflection on the relationship between a father and son. When the son is told by his father that the timing of an unannounced visit is bad he asks: ‘Christ. Am I not allowed to care?’ There is more poignancy in that one simple question than in many four hundred-page novels. ‘A Union’, from The Ugliest House in the World, is, at 80 pages, the longest story from Ho Davies’ two short story collections, and one that would perhaps gain something from being developed in longer form. Its examination of the effect of a prolonged strike on a small Welsh slate mining community is affecting, while its portrait of a marriage is sensitive and subtle. This story, more than any other in the collections, reveals Ho Davies’ feel for historical fiction. Its earthy treatment of the raw lives of those whose very existence was shaped by the ground upon which they stood, recalls Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, a sublime novel about subsistence and repression. Yet the reader is left wanting more, which is precisely what the author offered with The Welsh Girl, his first novel.
The Welsh Girl is set in a village in Snowdonia in North Wales just after D-Day. It is about the relationship between the seventeen-year-old Esther Evans, who works in the local pub, and Karsten Simmering, a German POW imprisoned in a camp near the village. Esther is ‘proud of her Welshness’, but ‘impatient with all the talk of the past, bored by the history. Somewhere inside her she knows that nationalism is part and parcel of provincialism.’ The Welsh Girl is at its most vivid when Ho Davies locates what is perceived as being a parochial temperament within very specific surroundings. Early on in the novel, we read:
Pretty soon the pub is down to just soldiers and diehards, the Welsh voices behind her wafting over with the smell of pipe tobacco. They’re quieter tonight, slower, sluggish as a summer stream. The talk for once isn’t politics. This is a nationalist village, passionately so. It’s what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued China teapot. The strike, all of forty-five years ago, almost broke the town, plunging it into poverty, and it’s taken something shared to stick back together the families of men who returned to work and those who stayed out.
This is compelling stuff. However, the talk in the pub, the banter between the Welsh and English, strays a little too close to the territory of How Green Was My Valley. It is as if the author is using the conversations between the characters to make points rather than allowing the characters to live. This is a case of not having found a form for the content. The Welsh Girl is a little too keen to present a thesis and this doesn’t sit well with its quiet and understated style of narration. The opening section, featuring the fictional intelligence officer Rotherham, a refugee from Germany, and the all too real Rudolf Hess, another sort of refugee from Germany, of course, is enjoyable, in and of itself, but it is out of place here.
Ho Davies links reference to the matrilineal nature of the inheritance of Jewishness – Rotherham is not a Jew because it was only his father that was Jewish –the Welsh concept of cynefin, which refers, at least in part, to the nature of what is passed on from one generation to the next, and the fact of Esther’s mother being dead. What, Ho Davies says, do we mean by the idea of our ‘mother tongue’? How is our identity formed and what say we do have in it? Esther is a Welsh speaker, English is her second language, her linguistic step-mother. To whom does she belong? Where do any of us fit in and what does it mean to fit in, in any case? ‘Welsh’ is an English word meaning ‘foreigner’, which was, ironically enough, given to the people of Wales by the English, who were the actual foreigners, having invaded the territory and taken possession of what had once belonged to people who spoke a different language and whose culture was, therefore, distinct.
‘Welsh’ is also a negative verb with the general sense of ‘breaking a promise’. The meaning of language, the transitional nature of definition, the way in which what you are will be used against you, the very political relationship that exists between a culture and the language it uses, occupies much space in this novel. And yet, as fascinating as such subject matter is, it is all a little too thought out in this novel. We know this book is about belonging all too quickly. Unlike the short stories, in which the author succeeds in finding the means by which to bring to subtle life his themes, The Welsh Girl doesn’t quite come off.
The great novel of Welsh nationalism remains to be written. However, if Peter Ho Davies were able to find a less mannered treatment of the subject, perhaps finding a way into the psychology of a single narrator, which his short stories demonstrate that he is very much capable of doing, he may yet write it.
Garan Holcombe, 2013