Love and loneliness in wartime
finds much to admire in this counterfactual exploration of a Welsh valley under Nazi occupation Resistance By Owen Sheers Faber and Faber, 290pp, $ 32.95
MOST people reading this would have no experience of war, not even, thankfully, of its possibility. Here, in John Howard’s happy Australia, war’s mad dismantling of all that is loved and ordinary does not touch us. The grisly record of modern history, however, suggests that long- term peace is a matter of chance, which must be why books about the 20th- century world wars find an avid audience in the 21st, and why, in a country remote from present conflicts, our Anzac celebrations are swelling.
We flop about in a biddable, non- heroic lethargy, lacking all conviction, morally flabby, and we know we need a work- out. Historical studies of the world wars pour out, but they are not enough. Only acts of art and imagination will get us there.
Take a look overseas and you’ll find some excellent remedies. Back in the 1990s, Anita Shreve gave us Resistance , about love in occupied Belgium ( nothing original about Owen Sheers’s title, then, though his story breaks the mould). Remember how Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker got you pumping? Last year Jonathan Littell pulled in the Goncourt prize with his World War II novel Les Bienveillantes ( The Kindly Ones). This year the doomed Irene Nemirovsky’s long- lost wartime manuscript Suite Francaise stunned everybody.
There is also Justin Cartwright’s The Song Before it is Sung , a homage to anti- Nazi activism and martyrdom, Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl and brilliant novelist A. L. Kennedy’s Day . These recent works are not only the latest in the genre of wartime romance. They are arresting treatments of the most testing times in living ( but only just) memory.
Sheers’s Resistance joins them. Set in Britain in 1944, this novel is a chilling, mesmeric journey into an alternative history and a life emptied of certainty. Imaginatively it is a challenge, made pleasurable by the lyrical qualities of Sheers’s prose. Was there really clear blue water between occupied, compromised France and the sceptred isle? Was it inevitable that the Nazis would be repulsed?
Sheers confronts us with the idea that it was not, that history is a matter of accident. Consequently, we should have no easy faith in the triumph of good; nor, once violently catapulted out of our comfort zones, should we have confidence in our capacity for resistance.
The novel does not, however, focus on a substitute unfolding of violent events. Intermittently, persuasively, Sheers drives home the shock of their taking place in that green and pleasant land; however, he keeps the horror and the cruelty, the predictable acts of Nazi intimidation, retribution and manipulation mainly in the background. Murderous efforts at insurgency also happen off- stage. His focus is on war’s covert, bloodless violence, the sort that affects relationships, minds and hearts.
Sheers severs his characters, British and German, from the onrush of invasion and occupation, enclosing them in the remote but magnificent Olchon Valley in Wales. This is an unnerving space, without communications, without news of any sort, yet in the midst of chaos. He sets them to work out for themselves where their private desires end and history begins. This is no simple matter.
The valley is sparsely populated by farming women. One awful night their husbands disappear, enacting a secret plan to join an underground resistance movement. Sons have long ago left for the front. The women are joined by a crack German patrol on a special mission to steal an invaluable medieval artwork. United in their isolation by a severe winter, sharing degrees of grief and exhaustion, these men and women start to create ways of getting on.
To start with, the quiet of this valley, its detachment from the tumult of war, lends an almost glacial slowness to the narrative. We are elegiacally immersed in the shock and sadness of Sarah Lewis as she gropes at a vanishing dent in the mattress where her lover once lay. The story inches forward as the author dwells on her emotional state. Stay with it. When the Germans arrive, it gets spookier. How dangerous are they?
Entranced by the raw loveliness of the valley, becalmed by its natural rhythms, they begin to insinuate themselves into the lives of these vulnerable women, expressing their essential human need to resist the deathly dictates of war. Now, Sheers tightens the wire.
The patrol leader, Albrecht Wolfram, a battlefractured idealist, slowly decides it must be possible for him to remove the bereft Sarah and himself from history, and from their personal histories. What are his chances?
Sheers’s treatment of individuals thrust together across an unbridgeable gulf has a precedent, one that he has already test run. At the 2006 media- mauled Hay- on- Wye literary festival, he staged an adaptation of the French World War II resistance bible Le Silence de la Mer , which was published secretly in 1941 during the Nazi occupation. The novel concerns the billeting of a lonely German soldier with a French family. It is a lesson in the limits of empathy and possibly a powerful inspiration behind this counterfactual ( Sheers’s term) exploration.
Albrecht’s most powerful pitch to Sarah arrives wrapped in an exquisitely rendered moment, when he causes music to invade the silence of the Olchon.
This is Sheers at his best: Albrecht mobilises an old phonograph; strains of Bach scratchily orchestrate small sounds of wind and birdsong, and loosen a world of pent- up feeling.
Given the pre- loved territory of this novel, and the charmed career of this too pretty, unsullied, Cambridge- groomed writer, critical resistance is tempting. High or low, Sheers’s brows are fetching; he works in radio, theatre and television, and has published highly acclaimed poetry collections The Blue Book and Skirrid Hill .
As a Welsh author, Sheers has all the mystique of the brooding, more- than- usually marginalised Celt; and he got lucky with his incredible great, great uncle Cripps. Sheers’s 2004 novel The Dust Diaries , beloved of Doris Lessing, was based on the astounding exploits of Arthur Shearly Cripps, the maverick missionary. Lucky Jim, opportunist or stunning new talent, Sheers is one to watch. Ultimately, Resistance is irresistible. It is prose by a poet, resplendent with metaphor, often beautiful. It is ruined hope and bad weather, fear and longing locked in combat, all beneath the high, dark horizon of the Black Mountains. Love it. Stella Clarke is a literary critic based in Canberra; she has taught extensively in Britain and Australia.