Resistance by Owen Sheers is much more than first meets the eye.
The story asks what might have happened had the Second World War turned out differently and ended with the successful German invasion of the United Kingdom. Resistance can be read and enjoyed on this level, that of a speculative adventure story much in the vein of Fatherland and various other books, but Owen Sheers is up to much more than that.
Resistance takes place in an isolated valley in Wales; it’s main characters are the women who live and work on valley’s rugged farms. As the novel opens, the women wake to find all of their husbands have left the valley without a trace and without a note. The women react in anger, sorrow and fear but they all know that their men, husbands, fathers and brothers, have left to join the resistance against the invading German army. This is the first level of resistance in the novel.
The second level addresses how the various women cope with their husbands’ absence. They must take over all of the farm work, they must find a way to keep the world outside the valley from discovering their husbands have left or risk being shot as aiding the insurgency, and they must cope with the emotional aspects of their husbands’ absence. They have to resist the temptation to leave the valley, to give up on the possibility of seeing their husbands again and the temptation to give in to the emotional trauma of their loss. Mr. Sheers portrays all of this with eloquence, simplicity and subtly. I found the writing in Resistance to be some of the best I’ve encountered in some time. He is able to make a man’s fading indentation in a double bed heartbreaking without making it sentimental.
The war goes on outside the valley and eventually enters it in the form of a German patrol of six soldiers. The patrol leader who speaks fluent English has seen enough of war. He decides to lay low and stay in the valley as long as possible, hopefully avoiding the ending days of the fighting. The soldiers become a third level of resistance for the women in the valley. They are basically, ordinary men, probably would have been good men had Hitler never come to power, but they are the enemy. The longer they remain in the valley, the more comfortable the women become with them and the temptation to stop resisting and begin collaborating by becoming friends grows. After all, the war is far away from the valley and the women could use some help with their farms.
Mr. Sheers reminds us that there is a war on through the fourth level in Resistance. He tells the story of a young man, too young to be a soldier as the war opens, who is recruited by the British army to maintain a watch on the valley and report any and all enemy action. He is told that he will probably only have two weeks to live once the Germans arrive, but because the German patrol leader is trying to hide out the rest of the war he survives long into the occupation. Long enough to begin wondering if he should continue with the resistance. Long enough to see the townspeople eagerly accept German customers in their shops.
I can’t say much more without spoiling the ending, but I will say that the book’s closing events were both shocking and dramatically satisfying and that they added yet another layer of meaning to Resistance.
In the years since I first posted this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I have forgotten how the book ended. I remember that I loved the book, ranked it as one of my top ten for that year, I think I may have forced it on my book club, too. But I have no idea how it ends. May be a good time to give it another read.