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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.