Sunday, April 13, 2008

Owen Sheers' "Resistance": Book Review

I like alternate history, stories about how people survived the Second World War, and tales from Wales. This novel combines these elements effectively. Sheers' debut demonstrates his careful, slowly paced, almost methodical, style of exacting prose. He writes with great--maybe too much for me as a city-boy-- attention to natural detail. The afterword tells how he placed the action of this book around his grandparents' farm, and his descriptions of life under the Black Mountains near the English border dig deep into rural life.

The morning of 9/11/01, he also relates in the afterword, he heard on the BBC an account of a home guard of last defence that the British had planned in the wake of a German invasion of the island. Sheers found out he had grown up with an older man who had been recruited for such a secret guard, and he got the idea for this story. Wehrmacht Captain Albrecht's the main character, who winds up guarding this isolated outpost of farms and farmwomen, among them Sarah Davies, whose husband has suddenly disappeared with the other local men, presumably to join such a home guard.

Without divulging any more details, a medieval world map, the sense of a respite from the world war that seems to be ebbing under a Nazi victory (if their own radio broadcasts can be believed), and the weariness of the Captain, whose wishes are for scholarship and reflection rather than commanding his small squad and continuing to follow the dictates of his superiors aligned with the SS, makes for compelling reading. After their men have slipped off, the women are compared to those spared after the Angel of Death at Passover has swept over their valley. The Captain recalls how a soldier's cheek, as the Normandy assault by the Allies was defeated, became streaked with a tear rivulet amidst the grime as he kept firing his machine-gun into the endless waves of enemy troops on the beach. A burn mark on a fragment of a dead soldier's pamphlet on how to treat the British resembles the outline of the coast that they are conquering. Such attention to the telling detail makes for intelligent storytelling.

Life on the farm and the other characters beyond Albrecht and Sarah, however, failed to rouse my interest. The amount of weighty yet rather mundane detail here given the backstory of the various farm women and the raising of sheep and the other soldiers failed to make them as vivid as the Captain and the woman who, predictably, begins to attract him. Less predictable, and certainly more impressive, the novel managed to make me not want it to end. I feared what would happen, and the last pages, and especially the coda, left me moved and intrigued. Sheers manages to play fair with the reader, while giving a remarkably subtle ending that suggests further scenes from the valley that inspired him may play out in a subsequent fictional return to this factual place.

No comments: