Book by Sheers Owen
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SEPTEMBER— NOVEMBER 1944
Would have been different. For it would have been
Edward Thomas, “As the Team’s Head-Brass”
In the months afterwards all of the women, at some point, said they’d known the men were leaving the valley. Just as William Jones used to forecast the weather by studying the sky or the formations of migrating birds, so the women said they’d been able to forecast the men’s sudden departure. After all, they were their men, their husbands. No one could read them like they could. So no surprise if they should see what was coming. That’s what the women said in the long silence afterwards.
But in truth none of them saw any change in the men’s behaviour. None of them knew the men were leaving and in many ways this was the hardest part of what happened. Their husbands left in the night. Just days after news of the invasion came crackling through on Maggie’s wireless, propped on a Bible on her kitchen table, the men, lit by a hunter’s moon, met at William’s milking shed and slipped out of the valley. Moving in single file they walked through the higher fields and up over the Hatterall ridge; an ellipsis of seven dark shapes decreasing over the hill's shoulder, shortening to a last full stop and then nothing, just the blank page of the empty slope. The women, meanwhile, slept soundly in their beds. It was only in the morning when a weak September sun shone into the valley that they realised what had happened.
For Sarah Lewis it began in her sleep. The drag, rattle, and bark of the dogs straining on their chains was so persistent it entered her dreams. A ship in storm, the sailors shouting for help from the deck, their pink faces and open mouths obscured by the spray blown up the sides of the hull. Then the noise became Marley’s ghost, dragging his shackles over a flagstone floor. Clink, slump, clink, slump. Eventually, as the light brightened about the edges of the blackout curtain and Sarah surfaced through the layers of her sleep, the sound became what it was. Two dogs, urgent and distressed, pulling again and again on their rusty chains and barking, short and sharp through the constraint of their collars.
Without opening her eyes Sarah slid her hand across the sheet behind her, feeling for the warm impression of her husband’s body. The old horsehair mattress they slept on could hold the shape of a man all day and although Tom was usually up before her, she found comfort in touching the warm indentation of where he’d lain beside her. She stroked her palm over the thin cotton sheet. A few hairs poking through the mattress caught against her skin, hard and stubborn as the bristles on a sow’s back.
And there he was. A long valley where his weight had pressed the ball of his shoulder and his upper arm into the bed; a rise where his neck had lain beneath the pillow. She explored further down. A deeper bowl again, sunk by a protruding hip and then the shallower depression of his legs tapering towards the foot of the bed. As usual, Tom’s shape, the landscape of him, was there. But it was cold. Normally Sarah could still feel the last traces of his body’s heat, held in the fabric of the sheet just as the mattress held his form. But this morning that residue was missing.
With fragments of her dreams still fading under her lids, she slid her hand around the curves and indentations again, and then beyond them, outside the borders of his body. But the sheet was cold there too. The dogs below her window barked and barked, their sound making pictures in her mind’s eye: their sharp noses tugging up with each short yap, exposing the white triangles of their necks, flashing on and off like a warning. She lay there listening to them, their chains rising and falling on the cobblestones of the yard.
Tom must have been up early. Very early. Not in the morning at all but in the night. She turned on her side and shifted herself across the bed. The blankets blinked with her movement and she felt a stab of cold air at her shoulder. Pulling them tight about her neck, she lay there within the impression of her husband, trying not to disturb the contours of his map. Everything about her felt heavy, as if her veins were laced with lead. She was trying to think where Tom could be but the barks of the dogs were distracting her. Her mind was blurred, as buckled as a summer’s view through a heat haze. Why hadn’t he taken the dogs? He always took the dogs. Did he say something last night? She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember anything past their dinner. She opened her eyes.
In front of her the bedroom window was bright about the ill–fitting blackout cloth, a thin square outline of light burning into the darkened room. She blinked at it, confused. The window looked into the western flank of the valley, and yet there was light. Too much light. The sun must already be over the Black Hill on the other side of the house. She must have slept late. She never slept this late.
She rose quickly, hoping movement would dispel her mild unease. Tugging roughly on the heavy blankets, she made the bed, tucking their edges under the mattress. Then she plumped the pillows, shaking them as if to wake them. Brushing a few of Tom’s hairs from the one beside hers she paused for a second and stilled herself, as if the hairs might summon Tom himself. She listened, one hand still resting on the pillow. But there was nothing. Just the usual ticks and groans of the old building waking and warming, and outside, the dogs, barking and barking.
She pulled back the blackout cloth and opened the thin curtains behind it with both hands, unveiling the room to light. It was a bright, clear day. She closed her eyes against the glare. When she opened them again white spots shimmered over her vision. Drawing the sleeve of her nightdress over her wrist she wiped away the veneer of condensation from one of the small panes and looked down into the yard below. The dogs, both border collies, both bitches, sensed the movement above them and barked and strained harder in response, pulling their chains taut behind them. Sarah looked above the outhouse where they were tied. Over the top of its jigsaw slate roof she could see the lower paddock rising up to meet the sweep and close of the valley’s end wall. Except for a few grazing sheep it was empty, and so were the steep–sided hills on either side, their edges bald against the blue sky.
Turning away from the window, she pulled her nightdress over her head. Again she felt the cold air on her skin. The dress's neckline held her hair for a moment, then let it go all at once so it fell heavily about her shoulders. She sat on the edge of the bed, put on her knickers, a vest, and began balling a pair of woollen stockings over her hand, her forehead puckered in a frown. Catching herself in the dressing–table mirror she paused and ran a finger up the bridge of her nose between her eyebrows. A slight crease was forming there. She’d only noticed it recently; a short line that remained even when her brow was relaxed. Still sitting on the edge of the bed she gathered up her hair and, turning her profile to the mirror, held it behind her head with one hand, exposing her neck. That crease was the only mark on her face. Other than that her skin was still smooth. She turned the other way with both hands behind her head now. She should like a wedding to go to. Or a dance, a proper dance where she could wear a dress and her hair up like this. That dress Tom bought for her on their first anniversary. She couldn’t have worn it more than twice since. Tom. Where was he? She dropped her hair and pulled on her stockings. Reaching into the dressing–table drawer, she put on a blouse and began doing up the buttons, the crease on her forehead deepening again.
Bad news had been filtering into the valley every day for the last few weeks. First the failed landings in Normandy. Then the German counterattack. The pages of the newspapers were dark with the print of the casualty lists. London was swollen with people fleeing north from the coast. They had no phone lines this far up, and apart from Maggie’s farm, which sat higher in the valley, the whole area was dead for radio reception. But news of the war still found its way to them. The papers, often a couple of days old, the farrier when he came, Reverend Davies on his fortnightly visits to The Court, all of them brought a trickle of stories from the changing world beyond the valley. Everyone was unnerved but Sarah knew these stories had unsettled Tom more than most. He rarely spoke of it, but for him they threw a shadow in the shape of his brother, David. David was three years younger than Tom. He’d had no farm of his own so he’d been conscripted to fight. Two months ago he was declared missing in action and, while Tom maintained an iron resolve that his brother would appear again, the sudden shift in events had shaken his optimism.
For Sarah news of the war still seemed to have an unreal quality, even when a few days ago the names of the battlegrounds changed from French villages to English ones. There were marks of the conflict all about her: the patchwork of ploughed fields down by the river once kept for grazing; the boys from her schooldays, and the farmhands, many of them gone for years now. But unlike Tom she didn’t have a relative in the fighting. Her own older brothers had been absent from her life ever since they’d argued with her father and broken from the family home when she was still a girl. They’d bought a farm together outside Brecon, large enough to have saved them both from the army. So Sarah didn’t possess that vital thread connecting her to the war that brought the news stories so vividly to life for so many others. There were women here, in the valley, who had lost sons, and in the early years she’d seen other m...
“Owen Sheers's Resistance is an astonishing and compelling study of human nature against the backdrop of an occupied village. Sheers plumbs the depths of love, cowardice, bravery, and the devastating effects of blind patriotism, and in doing so exposes the best and worst of humanity in unexpected and haunting ways.”
–Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
“[The] mixture of brutality and kindness is the great insight of Resistance… [The novel] demonstrates fiction’s unique power–we might call it the power of the hypothesis–to stand outside of recorded history and remind us how complicated and compromising an actual act of resistance might be.”
– New York Times Book Review
“Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a literary novel, but it's also a page turner. [It] immediately brings to mind "Dolce," the second part of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, which also treats the deepening feeling between a German officer and a married woman in an occupied land. Sheers’ novel is even more exquisitely written and suspenseful than Nemirovsky's, and it held me in its grip until the last page.”
– Chicago Tribune
“Emotionally complex, full of local rhythms and color, Sheers' first novel is hard to resist.
– USA Today
“The major accomplishment of this novel is that Sheers never lets his considerable research distract from the focus of his story. He also has a subtle and rather beautiful understanding of emotional nuance, and this plays out among his characters. It's a seductive story, made all the more appealing because it is so credibly set in circumstances that might have been. The reader ends up caring for everyone–Welsh or German or English. To gain empathy for a large cast of characters, all of whom line up on opposing sides of the war, is no small feat. These vulnerable men and women, indeed, become the faces of war.”
– Washington Post
“The finest parahistorical fiction leaves heroes and villains behind and begins with humanity. Such is the case with Owen Sheers’ taut, beautifully observed first novel…. Sheers has already published two books of poetry, and Resistance further exhibits his artistry. It's not just a question of his tossing off textured, lovely or haunting metaphors but of making them resonate and reveal…. He also excels at something more magical: finding the true, often unexpected responses for his characters, Welsh and German…. Sheers emerges as a gifted storyteller who can meld the literal and figurative to stunning–and tragic–effect.”
“Owen Sheers plausibly presents the shudder-invoking alternate reality of Britain losing the Second World War…. A compelling book.”
– New York Daily News
"A beautiful, vital novel, about the paths that can lead to war, and out of it."
–Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers
“A remarkable work of speculative imagination. Sheers writes with an austere, bracing beauty perfectly attuned to the stark lives (and loves) of his characters. The result is that rare gift, a literary thriller whose pages we turn slowly, even regretfully, savoring every word.”
–Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
“Owen Sheers’ alternate history of WWII beautifully illuminates that which is unalterable: the power of love and longing, community and courage."
–Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Easter Island
“With its complex characters and arresting plot, Resistance is an irresistible read.”
– The Missourian
"Frighteningly convincing and dripping with heartbreak. This is an outstanding debut."
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Absolutely wonderful [it's] both beautifully written, an exciting story and it really penetrates into the characters of the book.
What really stands out…is the beauty of the prose…. It's an extraordinary achievement for such a young writer.
It raises very strong questions about responsibility, about collaboration…it is one of those novels that really makes you think about issues… It's extraordinary to find this in such a beautiful and moving novel.”
–A Good Read, BBC 4
"A remarkable first novel… Resistance is at once a brilliant and sometimes frightening thriller, and a mature exploration of human blur and compromise."
" Resistance [is] an impressive debut and confirms Sheers as a writer whose talent encompasses a variety of literary forms."
“ Resistance is lavishly written.... Sheers’ realistic portrayal of individuals’ resistance–to the hardening of war and to the loss of a sense of self–make Resistance a debut glimmering with intrigue and promise.”
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