Owen Sheers is a man of many talents. I first stumbled across him a few weeks ago at the Hay festival, where he was reading from his verse drama Pink Mist. Commissioned by BBC Radio 4, this poem picked up some of the material he hadn’t been able to incorporate into a play he’d written about British soldiers’ experiences of the Afghan war.
Browsing around Hay’s many bookshops, I discovered a biography he’d written of his distant relative Arthur Cripps, described as a “lyric poet and maverick missionary to Southern Rhodesia”. Then I learned he was also a novelist and, after much internal wrestling, decided to pick up his first novel, Resistance, before the biography.
Set in an imagined version of 1944, months into the German occupation of Britain, the novel takes place in a small farming community on the Welsh borders. The women of this tiny, all-but-forgotten valley awake one morning to find their husbands vanished, gone to join the underground resistance. Unsure when – or whether – their husbands will be back, the women battle to keep their farms alive, keeping up their own resistance to defeat from both the distant invading forces and the more immediate attacks from nature, the weather and the steady march of time.
Then one day, a small German patrol arrives in the valley, tasked with finding a certain map…
How will the exhausted, broken German soldiers deal with their brief respite from frontline duties? How will the anguished, frightened women respond to the enemy in their midst? Owen draws his characters beautifully, and imagines their different roles and responses superbly. His writing, while beautiful and perceptively descriptive, avoids sounding like a poet trying to write in longer lines. He is a novelist with a poet’s ear and a painter’s eye; the story never feels secondary to the words with which it is conveyed.
Owen grew up in an area similar to his setting, and his familiarity with the rhythms of rural Welsh life is very obvious in both the setting and the story, as is his fascination with the myths and legends rolling around those hills. I’m sure on a second and third reading, I’ll pick up more and more themes and layers of depth and meaning in the stories told by some of his characters.
On a first reading, though, the sense that those layers are there was enough, they gave the book richness without clamouring to be noticed, and gave the characters a satisfyingly rounded sense of time and place.
In short, it’s a beautiful book, telling an excellent, compelling story set in a world which feels worryingly plausible. I loved it, and can’t wait to read more of Owen’s work, in whatever genre he hits on next.
Oh, and he wrote the screenplay when Resistance was adapted for film, too. Freak.
My rating: 5/5