Ceri Shaw


 

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Resistance by Owen Sheers

user image 2010-04-22
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Book Reviews

Resistance by owen sheers

This novel is set in an alternative universe. One in which the Nazis succeed in conquering Russia and invading Britain after the failure of the D-Day landings in 1944. Such literary contrivances can seem very intrusive in a work of 'mainstream' literature but to Owen Sheers' credit the conceit is rendered with a masterful touch and seems almost essential in order to intensify the focus of the books' main theme. In the depths of a freezing winter in a remote corner of the Black Mountains in South Wales two people consider whether it is possible to 'cheat' history; leave the past behind and assert their shared humanity in the midst of bloody conflict. This is no pastoral idyll, nor is it history writ large in the manner of Raymond Williams' - "People of The Black Mountains", but the landscape and its history do figure prominently in the narrative. At one point during her childhood, Sarah, the heroine of this tale meets David Jones, the Welsh poet and artist who stayed with Eric Gill at Capel-y-Ffin in the 1920's. Her meetings with him are recounted thus:-

"And that was when the poet began to tell Sarah his stories, recasting the land and hills she'd known all her life as the backdrop for his Celtic myths, for tales of saints and soldiers, of kings and bards. His stories worked upon the valleys around them like his paintings. he spoke of places she knew or that she'd hard of before, St Peter's well, The Abbey, The Cat's Back, St Davids Cell, but the lens of his stories made them all new again. Some of the stories she'd even heard before, but never like this, never growing from the very hills of her birthplace."

Sheers here hints at the perhaps unique relationship which the Welsh people have with their landscape. The hills of Wales are indeed magnificent but they pale into insignificance, at least in topographical terms, when compared with the European Alps or the North American Cascades. Their special gravity and power lies in the fact that every nook and cranny, every fold and crevice, is invested with some human significance. The sum of history and legend which the landscape reveals is almost an externalization of Welsh identity itself. As R.S. Thomas puts it:-

"You cannot live in the present, At least not in Wales,"

Sarah, however, is bound to the valley she lives in by far more tangible ties. There is the instinct for survival which impels her to observe the cycle of the rural calendar and her loyalty to her husband, who goes missing early on in the book when he is called upon to participate in the resistance to the German occupation. By contrast, Albrecht, the German officer sent into the Olchon valley on a secret mission, is suffering from a severe case of 'hiraeth', or longing, both for his home and for his past destroyed by war. Unfortunately, he has no home to go back to. It was destroyed by Allied bombing. His war-weariness manifests itself in a desire to prolong his mission and in the uneasy truce which he and his men establish with the valleys' inhabitants.

The precarious situation which develops can only prove temporary. The climactic moments of the novel are reached as both characters have to decide how they will react when the cataclysmic events in the outside world threaten to come crashing in on them. The distant rumbles of war are heard from beyond the Olchon throughout the book. Owen Sheers handles these interruptions skilfully. His references to these events are subtle and sparing... just sufficient to preserve the tension of the main theme.

The preparation and training of the the Auxiliary Units of the British Resistance Organization are also woven into the fabric of the narrative; as is their ultimate fate. The book ends with both protagonists facing a stark choice which is really no choice at all. In order to survive they must turn their backs on everything they have known and attempt to find personal salvation in a future that is as uncertain as it is dangerous. Do they succeed? I leave it to you to discover how this final act of 'resistance' plays out .

Buy 'Resistance' HERE.


Owen Sheers Biography: BBC Wales   Amazon: Owen Sheers

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Brian Stephen John
03/08/12 02:36:11PM @brian-stephen-john:

I liked the film, but not the book. In fact, I only managed to get to about the halfway point before giving up. I struggled through the first part, which I found very slow and repetitive -- and desperately in need of some strong editing. Some sections were attractively written, with a nice turn of phrase -- but maybe what we have here is a poet writing a novel which is rather too "literary" and formulaic? I did not feel any affection for any of the characters -- and consequently I never got to really care about what happened to any of them. I'm not sure that the author was very fond of any them either! Somehow I found the writing style cold and detached, and this, together with the very slow pace of the storytelling, left me feeling frustrated. I felt that somehow the author was trying to emulate the stiff formality and emptiness of rural Welsh life that was captured so well by Kate Roberts, and by Bruce Chatwin in "On the Black Hill." He portrays the hesitancy, fortitude, stubbornnness, and conservatism of the little community of women at the centre of the story, but where is the WARMTH?

That's my view. I know others have quite contrary views. When my wife's reading group discussed the book, some violent differences of opinion bubbled up to the surface! At least it got them talking..... and that has to be an objective for any serious novelist.


Bill Tillman
04/22/10 11:39:59PM @bill-tillman:
What an excellent review! An in depth look at author an story without giving away much. Wonderful links at the bottom and even a place to go to purchase it. Who could ask for more.