Resistance, Owen Sheers

I thought it was about time I tried writing about books again, to see if it will make me a better reader.

So, I heard about Resistance years ago, on Front Row, because it had just been made into a film. For all I know, the film sank without trace, but the premise sounded interesting and I made a mental note to find the book. I then didn’t and had mostly forgotten about it, until  I found a copy on the bookshelf in the cabin we’d rented for a long weekend in the Brecons. So I picked up my own copy.

Now, counter-factual history is usually not my thing, but the small scale setting of this appealed. It’s set in a 1944 where Germany is very close to winning the war, the D-Day Landings were an epic failure and German troops are now encircling London. The broader context has the Axis powers wrapping up elsewhere in the world, America returning to a more isolationist policy and an inevitability that Britain will fall.

That’s the situation at the beginning of the novel, when all the men from a small village buried in the Welsh mountains leave their farms overnight and disappear. They have probably gone to join some resistance movement, but that’s never made really clear because they are more important in their absence. Their wives wake up in the morning with no idea where their husbands have gone, and gradually figure it out together. They are disbelieving and fearful, because the German reprisals against the families of resistance members are well known and brutal. But, in the absence of other options, they settle to the hard business of keeping their farms running.

For Sarah, her husband Tom’s absence is a sort of bereavement. She misses him, she’s angry with him, she tries to remember the details of how they first met. So that she can tell him her story when he returns, she starts to keep a diary. At first, she struggles because the act of writing is unfamiliar; later, she struggles because she’s writing her own counter-factual story.

Because, a five man patrol of Germans arrives in the valley, tasked with finding the Mappa Mundi which has been moved from Hereford for safety. They are all battle weary, and finding that no orders follow them and they seem to have fallen into a bureaucratic hole between two local commanders, they agree to stay forgotten. They should report the missing men, but they don’t. All Captain Albrecht Wolfram really wants to do is to sit out the rest of the war in this beautiful, tranquil spot.

So life goes on. The men live at the hall and mostly keep themselves to themselves, while also keeping an eye on the women. The women, with Maggie as their unofficial leader and spokeswoman, tell the Germans that they won’t help them or give them food. It’s a mutually agreed truce, while beyond the valley, out of sight and finally out of radio contact as the BBC gets taken over, the war transitions into occupation.

Not until winter lands suddenly do the German soldiers (and really, I never distinguished between them and their individual identities don’t seem that important) start to help with the farm chores. This is where you expect that the story will turn into a romance, with likely a tragic ending. It’s more unexpected that it doesn’t. So while one of the soldiers does start to develop a fondness for the young daughter of one of the women, that never amounts to anything beyond a daydream on both their sides. Wolfram does create a better sense of connection with Sarah, but that’s driven more by his need than hers. She still believes Tom’s coming home.

The relationships above all are practical. After all, digging out sheep from a snow drift, or killing a pig are tough, physical jobs. But, of course, this is still war, and tacitly everyone knows that even that is too much. Wolfram accidentally intercepts a stand in postman one day, and scribbles over all the letters coming in that the recipients are deceased. He reckons that if the women are already thought dead, no one from either side will come looking, and he doesn’t want the women dead or his men found.

Sarah’s diary meanwhile, continues in it’s record keeping vein but without any mention of the Germans at all. So with each day’s writing she fabricates the day’s activity. It’s too complex a situation otherwise to explain that the enemy isn’t really the enemy, particularly to the possible return of a husband who’s been involved in the last line of defence.

The hard winter means that the valley is held as if between moments, but time catches up. Maggie has a promising yearling, the last raised with her husband William before he left, to take to the country show. She takes one of the soldiers with her, but he’s overheard whispering to the horse in German, and then recognised.

And that’s that. The inhabitants of the valley are back on the radar, tarnished respectively with collaboration and disobedience. The yearling is shot, which shatters Maggie. Wolfram  tells Sarah they must get away, now. His radio operator goes off to radio in, and as Sarah leaves, more Germans are coming.

We don’t know that the women’s husbands are dead, but it’s likely. We don’t know that the women themselves will be punished, but that was always the most probable outcome. We don’t know if Sarah does or does not meet Wolfram at the appointed place, or if she gets away. But in the family Bible, left behind, Sarah has added her own date of death.

Resistance Movie Poster 2011

 

 

 

 

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