Resistance: Owen Sheers

★★★★

I’d probably never have read Resistance if Amazon hadn’t put the Kindle version on sale for 99p. At that level it seemed churlish to ignore a book which made such a splash a few years ago. The reason I hadn’t picked it up before was because I rarely venture into books about the Second World War. I’m not a great fan of war stories in general. Fortunately for me, this turned out to be an unexpectedly moving story about compassion, humanity and idealism rather than about war per se. However, having read other reviews on Amazon since finishing the book, I see that many people who bought it expecting a war story were underwhelmed by the fact that very little happens. After all, the resistance that underpins the novel is not the kind you might expect.

The story takes place in the Olchon valley, a remote and isolated farming community in Wales, at a time shortly after the failed Normandy landings, when German forces have already established a foothold on the south coast of Britain and are beginning to push north towards London. One morning, the four women in the valley wake up to find that their husbands have disappeared. They have given no warning and left no messages or explanation, save that offered in a pamphlet which the women discover, suggesting their husbands have gone to join guerrilla resistance forces in the Welsh hills. In the absence of any men, the women come together to tackle the tasks of hard physical farming that now fall on their shoulders. The valley is so remote that their survival depends upon their animals and produce, especially as autumn turns towards the hard barrenness of winter.

And yet, presently, another group of men arrives in the valley: a patrol of German soldiers, led by Albrecht von Wolfram, who come to the Olchon on orders from the highest level of the Nazi hierarchy, searching for a particular map. As winter deepens and they settle into an abandoned house in the valley, this mission becomes sidelined by the simple desire to leave the war behind them and to reclaim their humanity in this remote pocket of Wales.

Sheers’s writing has a gentle, lyrical quality which is at its best when describing the beauties of the Welsh landscape and the intimate relationship that this farming community has with Nature. By setting his story in such an isolated place, he takes his characters out of time, replacing the artificial measurements of a clock or calendar with the measure of the sunrise and sunset, the seasons, the thaw or snowfall, the tupping, lambing and dipping of the ewes. In the face of this ancient rhythm, the German soldiers and the band of hardy, lonely women have to negotiate questions of collaboration, loyalty and nationality that steadily begin to seem less important in this world so far from visible signs of war and strife. The story gains a bittersweet beauty, an almost aching fragility, because the relationship that develops between invaders and invaded is something that trembles on the edge of a knife. It exists in a state of suspension, that could be dashed at any moment – like one of the sheaths of ice around blades of grass that Sheers describes. It is a mayfly existence, and yet the valley is so cut off from the outside world that for a moment this cautious balance of good manners and mutual aid comes very close to creating a community. And a handful of damaged, bitter men can begin to hope that they can find some savour in life again.

There are plenty of moments where Sheers takes a tiny detail and focuses on it for a moment, allowing it to illuminate some aspect of a character’s life. He is remarkably good at writing from a female perspective. When Sarah Lewis, the main character, sits down with her family Bible, Sheers uses this as an opportunity to trace her female ancestors’ names over the generations, moving from Welsh to English: ‘With each new wave-hill that rolled them nearer England, with each man that took them east, their names were smoothed in the wash of the tide‘. For some reason that section struck me as especially beautiful, because it suggested the way that women are carried along as silent partners in a marriage.  A man decides to move his wife and family closer to England, just as a man might decide one night to leave his wife with no warning for a greater cause. And in both cases the wife simply carries on as best she can, adjusting to her new circumstances. Similarly, when Sheers describes the closing notes of a piece by Bach, his words conjure up not just the way that music transcends its notes, but also the way that silences can often be much more powerful than words:

The movement closed, not as the others had with definite strokes across a string, but with the lightest of touches, almost accidental, the contact so slight that the final note barely breathed from the string before extinguishing, leaving a resonance of more substance than the note itself.

It would have been very easy for Sheers to take the story in a predictable direction. That he chooses not to is very admirable; his interest is in the nervous dynamic between two people, or two groups of people, rather than in any concrete results of that dynamic. Everything that happens in the valley is underlaid with exquisite caution. Of course, we are also frequently reminded that what is happening in the Olchon is a kind of strange experiment that couldn’t happen anywhere else: the war goes on beyond the borders of the valley, with all the distant acts of brutality and suffering that we would expect. And, because no place can keep itself an island, the odd little microcosm within the valley cannot last forever. The beauty of the story lies in this knowledge of impermanence, which infuses everything with a gentle melancholy – so very appropriate for the Welsh soul. I know that the ending has struck a false note for some people. For me, it fitted with the feel of the rest of the book and it is another way in which Sheers subverts our expectations of what happens in a story like this.

What is interesting is that so much of this is based on fact – not the central, counter-factual conceit, of course, though it’s startling how close we came to that, but the orders given to potential insurgents and the preparations made in case of such an invasion. Sheers writes in his afterword about his conversations with a farmer called George Vater, whose experiences inform those of the character George in the book. It’s the most compelling kind of ‘what if?’ history, in that Sheers shows what might so easily have happened, but also uses it as a chance to explore deeper, more universal questions about human nature, hope, and the artificial divisions created by war.

A film of Resistance was released last year, starring Andrea Riseborough as Sarah and the rather delectable Tom Wlaschiha (Jaqen H’ghar in Game of Thrones) as Albrecht. I haven’t seen it, but quite a lot of reviewers have savaged it on Amazon, mainly because ‘nothing happens’. I wonder if the distributors made a mistake in choosing a DVD cover which features swastikas and explosions, suggesting your average Second World War film and actually entirely missing the point of the story.

Someone, somewhere, complained that it felt too much like a Terence Malick film. As you know, I’ve sometimes found Malick pretentious beyond belief, but in this particular case I think that kind of treatment is ironically just what’s called for. Has anyone seen the film? I’d be interested to hear what someone who enjoyed the book thought of it…

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