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Resistance    by Owen Sheers order for
by Owen Sheers
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Anchor, 2009 (2007)
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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Award-winning poet Owen Sheers' first novel, Resistance, is based on an imagined occupation of Britain by Nazi Germany in World War II. Sheers tells readers in an Afterword that 'This novel is a work of fiction set in an alternative recent history ... I first heard about the plans for a British resistance organization when I was working for a builder in the Llanthony valley'.

Susan Lewis awakens. Reaching out, she feels the indentations in the horsehair mattress left by the form of her husband. Along with other men from the remote Welsh border valley of Olchon, her husband Tom disappeared during the night. Maggie Jones' husband William is in his late fifties. Mary Griffiths' young daughter Bethan lives at home, while two sons served in the war over the past four years. Menna Probert, hoping that Jack will return home soon, tends to two children, one- and three-years-old. Edith Evans resides in a 'low-lying stone cottage with a broken-backed roof that told its name from the Iron Age hill fort that once occupied the ridge above it'. Edith had lived alone there with her son since her husband died in an accident.

Determined to survive, the women regroup and form a plan of mutual aid in tending to the flocks of sheep and working the dogs, while waiting and hoping for news. As the severe winter sets in, animals are located under mounds of snow - some did not make it. From the static of Maggie's dying wireless, the women hear about the war which seemed distant until a bomber crashed in a nearby field. Through stretches of white noise, announcements filter through of failed landings in Normandy, the German counterattack, casualty lists, and the 'swelling of London with people fleeing north from the coast'. Maggie looks through a leaflet with dull green lettering and Stand Fast printed across the cover. The last words are in capital letters: 'THINK BEFORE YOU ACT. BUT ALWAYS THINK OF YOUR COUNTRY BEFORE YOU THINK OF YOURSELF.'

As the realities of war close in on the isolated community, its fragile harmony begins to unravel. A unit of six Germans under the command of Captain Albrecht Wolfram settles into an abandoned house within the valley. At first the two camps keep mostly to themselves until a harsh winter takes hold and it becomes clear that the women and the Germans must rely on each other. Albrecht approaches the women, offering a truce, 'a recipe for mutual survival ... through what was left of this war'. The women keep quiet about their husbands' absence, knowing that the Germans are searching for resistors. Sarah keeps a journal, longing for Tom's return and for him 'to hold her and tell her 'Shh, bach ... it's all right. It's going to be fine'. Captain Albrecht confides in Sarah that he was once a student at Oxford before the war. He reveals the true purpose of his mission, speaking of a hidden and valuable Mappa Mundi.

Owen Sheers injects suspense via British Intelligence Officer Tommy Atkins pledging George Bowen to secret work. After something that was to last fourteen days actualizes to four years, George returns to the valley. Sheers writes lyrically of marching infantry: 'The slow ones. The blistered ones. The broken souls with broken soles'. Rich descriptions - like 'How that early sun caught the frost on the ploughed fields, transforming the crop into a field of diamonds' and 'Just as the air purged his lungs, so the views purged his sight' - melt in the mind like the finest of chocolate. Resistance, which I highly recommend, is like no other story of wartime I've ever read. What develops could be viewed as treason or unpatriotic, while it seems to be the right thing to do, and it comes at a high price. The account is deftly tuned in the hands of a gifted writer and poet.

Owen Sheers, born in Fiji in 1974 and brought up in South Wales, was the 1999 winner of an Eric Gregory Award and the Vogue Young Writer's Award. His first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year and the 2001 Forward Poetry Prize. The Dust Diaries, a nonfiction narrative set in Zimbabwe, was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize and won the 2005 Wales Book of the Year. In 2004 he was writer in residence at the Wordsworth Trust and was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society's 20 Next Generation Poets. His second collection, Skirrid Hill, won a Society of Authors' Somerset Maugham Award. Sheers is currently a Fellow of the New York Public Library's Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Resistance is his first novel, and he is working on a second.

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