The Welsh Fasting Girl

Written by Varley O’Connor
Review by Misty Urban

In 1869, American journalist Christine Thomas leaves her home in Brooklyn, NY, to travel to Wales, the homeland of the husband she lost in the Civil War. Christine has an assignment to investigate Sarah Jacobs, a twelve-year-old Welsh farm girl who is said not to have taken food for sixteen months. Christine grows attached to the sweet and pious Sarah, and in letters to her lost husband, she analyzes the cultural forces acting on the girl, caught in a web of lies spun by her father and the local vicar, living in a rural society challenged by the forces of modernity. When a strict watch set upon the girl ends in her death, Christine watches the unfolding legal action until one of the Jacobs sisters draws her personally into investigating how Evan Jacobs’ sexual abuse, ruthless control, and vaunting ambition destroyed his daughters, his family, and his livelihood.

O’Connor stays close to the facts of the Jacobs case but crafts a moving, masterful story of human error, longing, and conflicting belief. Christine’s analytical letters feel heavy-handed in comparison to the wildly beautiful prose that sings through the chapters narrated by the Jacobs sisters; the voice of the youngest, Margaret, is especially compelling. Though dealing with their own conflicts, the invented characters—Christine, her family, her grown children and her reporter friends—somehow feel less real than the deeply complex and vividly sketched historical figures, including the Jacobses, the vicar, and the medical experts who watch the girl die. O’Connor’s recreation of this world and its people is haunted and haunting, with marvelous poetry and human sorrow resonating in every line.