It's actually a question I ponder (big surprise there – I ponder lots of things!), and usually when I'm pondering it, I'm angry; usually, I'm reminded to ponder it by the appearance in bookstores of yet another wan, preening autobiography by some blow-dried pretty young thing with all the depth of an 8 by 10 glossy headshot. When societies are in decline, they focus on trivialities – and what could be more trivial than how a person looks? - and I seem to see more and more books whose existence wouldn't have been contemplated for a second if their figureheads weren't attractive (our latest Open Letters Bestseller autopsy is heavily populated by examples of this).
I'll go right on pondering, and in the meantime, it's lucky that the issue can be easily dismissed in the case of Owen Sheers. His looks might have made some of his initial judges more forgiving, but his talent, happily, is real. And his debut novel is well worth your time.
It's most daring aspect is its premise, and it's such a shopworn premise it could easily have scuppered the whole project, if it had been handled poorly: the Nazis, victorious in the East, have successfully repulsed the D-Day attack and launched an invasion of their own – they've overrun England's coastal defenses and conquered the country. To say the least, it's a scenario that's been proposed before, by many, many writers less attractive than young Sheers.
The best part of the premise is its believability. The triumphalism of time has largely obscured the fact that the world very nearly saw such a premise, as reality. The Eastern problems the Nazis faced in invading Russia weren't half as intractable as they're made out to be by most historians – and if the Nazis had fully mobilized the forces they already had waiting in Normandy, D-Day would have been an Allied bloodbath. And Hitler's failure to attack England when it stood alone against his Fortress Europe remains a mystery – had he made the attempt, England would have fallen with exactly the speed and muddled heroism Sheers portrays in his book.
The key to Resistance's success is the through-a-keyhole way he portrays that conquest. He sets his story in the Olchon, a remote valley in Wales, and he very nearly keeps the focus there throughout. One morning young Sarah wakes in her cold bedroom and instinctively reaches for the indentation her husband Tom leaves in their horsehair mattress – she isn't reaching for him, because she expects he's already up and about, working on their farm. But she likes to run her fingers over the still-warm indentation, tracing his presence by his absence, feeling the warmth he's left behind. It's a wonderfully intimate way to start the book – most young writers, eager to impress, would have started with the Luftwaffe and Winston Churchill in chains, that sort of thing.
Sarah quickly realizes what all the other women in the valley realize: their men are gone. They've left in the middle of the night, taken coats and meager supplies, left no notes whatsoever. The reader is told they've gone to join the resistance and left no word because they knew their women's ignorance would be their best defense, but the women themselves hardly suspect this, and some of the book's most heartbreaking passages deal with the anger and resentment that mass abandonment causes. These are hardy women, not prone to complaining, and it works on them, that they have no idea whether or not their men-folk are dead, or imprisoned – nearby or far away. Sheers does a confident job of keeping us mostly in the dark about these things too – his book is at its strongest when it's signaling what's missing:
The hill fort itself was now no more than a series of faint concentric rings buried beneath centuries of soil and grass. It was as subtle a feature on the ridge as the banks and dips of Tom's body had been in the horsehair mattress of Sarah's bed. Like Tom's outline, the missing physical presence of the fort, its ramparts and defences, could be traced only by someone who knew the place intimately, who could still see what was no longer there in the earth echoes underfoot. A careful eye, sensitive to the landscape, could make out where a gate once stood or the foundations of huts where men had once slept and fought and loved and cooked. To the casual observer, however, there was nothing there, just a toothless gap in a long grassy jawbone of earth and a few faint humps beneath a tangled mass of bracken and gorse.
Sheers himself possesses that careful eye – one of the most rewarding things about Resistance is how undemonstratively adult it all is. The women have only one real choice: to carry on, to help each other get through the coming winter, to wait for the return of their men. Before their one radio goes silent, they get reports of the epic events happening in the rest of Britain, but at first they're confident they themselves won't be involved, as their matriarch, Maggie, says:
“But we're not going to see any Germans here anyway, are we? I mean, what would they want here? The tractor? Some eggs? We've hardly got anything ourselves, and for once that's a good thing, because it means we haven't got anything for them either. They're not going to bother coming all the way up here. Not in winter they won't.”
But of course the Nazis do come – a small detachment led by quiet, introspective Captain Albrecht Wolfram (in a conceit only a poet would conceive, he's descended from Wolfram von Eschenbach), who's under orders, and personally inclined, to impose no strict martial law on the Olchon but rather to help the women keep their farms operating. Despite how well he's delineated (Sheers is very good at setting up his characters), Captain Albrecht is the book's only real weak spot: the tortured Nazi is too easy a staple of WWII fiction (just as the brutal thug Nazi is – simple working-stiff Nazis seem to be a thing undreamt of in most writers' philosophies). Every note of that old refrain is struck here – he's war-weary, he's lonely, he's sensitive, and he's awestruck by the beauty of the Welsh countryside:
It was nature in all its massive certainty, from the crowds of trees running along the valley floor to the barren challenge of its hilltops. He'd never seen anywhere like it before … he'd never seen somewhere quite like the Olchon before. Somewhere so still, so bluntly beautiful and yet possessed, within that same beauty, of such a simple, threatening bareness, too.
All of this combines with the fact that he finds Sarah attractive and works a kind of change in him – the change confuses him, but that's only because he's presumably never read any WWII fiction:
He'd already begun to feel the faintest of turnings within himself this past week. He knew it was the valley that had engaged this turning and he wanted it to continue, this slow rotation inside him like the tumblers of a lock edging into place. If it went on for long enough, until the end of the war, then who knows? It might just unlock him altogether.
That unlocking – and its after-effects – is the most predictable thing about Resistance, but it matters oddly little: the story is so deftly presented, the characters so well-drawn, that readers won't mind a little predictability here and there. The subtlety of this novel would do credit to a writer twice young Owen's age – one wonders at the sheer amount of poetic compression it must have required (and one notes, rather ominously, the lack of subsequent published fiction). The natural comparison to make here is with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which deals similarly with a bit of Nazi-occupied Britain (only in that case, there's nothing hypothetical about that occupation) and a cast of strong-willed women. That book became a gazillion best-seller beloved by all, whereas Resistance commands a smaller fan-base – despite the aforementioned Sheers rugged good looks. So the pondering continues ...