Sunday, 11 May 2008


I honestly thought that nothing would beat Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders for the best book I would read this year. But it’s only May and already there is a contender – Owen Sheers’ Resistance.

The premise of the book is simple – the D Day landings in Normandy in 1944 failed and a resurgent German army has invaded Britain.

On the opening page of the book we learn that Sarah Lewis’ husband, Tom, has left in the night. It soon becomes apparent that all the other men in the Olchon valley (this is not a large number – the husbands and sons of a handful of farms) have left too. Plans long in the preparation have swung into action with the Wehrmacht’s arrival and the British Reistance is underway, the farmers forming Active Service Units like thousands of other previously non-combatant men all over the country.
But the book is not about these men; it focuses entirely on the consequences of their desertion on the women of the Olchon, farmers’ wives, daughters and mothers.
What will happen to them? In other areas where the men have left, it is made clear, their families are used as bait to lure them home or killed as punishment for the men’s resistance.

The other set of characters in the book is a small German army unit, handpicked (the reasons he picks them are little gems of serendipity) by their Captain, Allbrecht Wolfram. We are told fairly early on in the book that Wolfram has been given a special mission, that he is not in the Olchon simply to subdue and subjugate the locals; the unit even spends several days in Oxford so he can undertake research which will help him in his unspecified missin. But, despite the blurb on the back of the book we do not find out til nearly the end of the book what this special mission is. It hardly matters, however, it’s just a device to get Wolfram into the valley so the real action – the growth of his attraction towards Sarah Lewis and his determination to survive the war and have a life with her – can take place.

It is all beautifully done. Sheers is a poet as well as a novelist and, boy, it shows. There isn’t a word out of place in the entire book; the valley and its changing seasons (the action takes place over the period of a year and more) are wonderfully depicted; characters are perfectly drawn from telling details. Everything is rooted in the landscape and metaphors, similes and reminiscence root the characters very firmly as part of their surroundings. These people do not simply live in this valley, they are a moving, breathing part of it, as essential to its nature as the bilberries and the ponies, the steep-sided hills and the snows which cover them in winter.

We see most of the action – and, therefore, the other characters – through the eyes of Sarah and Albrecht and the shifting nature of old friendships and new allegiances is beautifully done and psychologically convincing. Sheers shows, with pitiless accuracy, why – though the Germans are just men, little different to the husbands and sons who have deserted them – they can never be just men to the women of the Olchon. War makes enemies of us because there are always victors and vanquished; even those who do not align themselves with the rhetoric and methods of the victors, or do take part in the violence of the vanquishing, are still of the same nationality and, therefore, cannnot be seen simply as human beings with the same loves and hates, fears and joys as us.

I’m not going to say any more about the book because the plot is simple and to give any more details would be to spoil it. But if you love true, sympathetically-drawn characters who are living in a fictional landscape so real you can touch, feel and smell it in the words on the page, then this is the book for you.

Incidentally, part of the reason the Olchon is so well drawn is that it is a real place. Many of the events in the book really happened and, had D Day not gone as planned, one can only imagine that the rest would inexorably have fallen into place just as Owen Sheers describes.


Tim Stretton said...

Wow! I must get this one immediately... This sounds simply glorious.

It's a cliche that new writers find it difficult to get published - but one reason for that is that there are so many brilliant books already out there...

Alis said...

Yes, and the annoying thing is that Owen Sheers is a new author - he has one non-fiction title to his credit but this is his first novel... sigh...

KAREN said...

Great review and I agree with every word. I loved it. And I'm not at all jealous...