The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

Sheers explores in great subtlety the relationships between the soldiery and the women. In particular Albrecht, a former scholar, and Sarah, who left school early, find they have more in common than they expected — missing loves, similar sensibilities, a respect for literature, and a recognition of their shared humanity. Against their relationships there is, mixed in with some reluctant toleration and socialising, a background of suspicion, distrust and fear in the wider community; and of attempts to restore some normality being punctuated by savage acts of reprisal.

Invisibly binding foreground and background like threads in a tapestry are more abstract themes. Albrecht’s surname reflects the tribute paid to the medieval poet Wolfram von Eschenbach: Wolfram is best known as the author of Parzival, the story of Sir Perceval’s quest for the holy grail. In the late 13th-century Hereford Mappa Mundi, which looms large but mostly hidden in these pages, the quest theme is also strongly represented: illustrated prominently are Jerusalem as the centre of Christian pilgrimage and Crete’s labyrinth as symbolic of the classical quest. The search for a special relic to take back to Himmler’s parody of Camelot, the Wewelsburg Castle, is in fact just one of many Arthurian themes in this  novel; another is Sarah’s childhood remembrance of Welsh artist and poet David Jones who had enthralled her with tales of Arthur and of the spirit of a king within the mountains. (This latter  may be the medieval hero Owain Lawgoch rather than King Arthur, however, as Owen Sheers the poet will have known.)

Borders and margins are everywhere: in the Welsh Marches; Offa’s Dyke itself — built to separate the Mercian Angles from their Cambrian neighbours — running on the ridge above the valley named from a river with a Welsh name; in the sheep farmers, conscious of their Brythonic heritage but geographically resident in England’s Herefordshire. More intangible are the understandable barriers between Albrecht’s men and the valley women, and those between the locals at the Llanthony Show and poor shunned Maggie.

I very much admired the author’s recreation of life in the Welsh hills, the minutiae of exacting tasks combined with isolation and with the usual anxieties accompanying subsistence farming. This slow pace of life is beautifully echoed in the pace of the narrative as we move through the rural year, from autumn to summer. Violence is never dwelt on, and rarely visceral; while there is always a constant sense of menace and of the world turning inexorably, the shocks are few but telling.

The final violent deed, done by somebody we might least expect, is to me narratively speaking exactly right; it symbolically crosses the border between wartime uncertainty and a hopeful future, with the object itself a gateway to be utterly destroyed so as to allow stasis to be overcome. The genius loci is thus summoned from his cave, the final crossing of the ridge over which Offa’s Dyke runs an escape from the perils of No Man’s Land. The hand of the poet, I feel, is evident everywhere in this wonderful novel; it’s a healthy way to respond to the horrors of war and conflict and to exalt the human spirit.

In the 2015 Reading Challenge I decided this would count as a book set in my hometown. Strictly speaking the events in this novel mostly take place in one of the valleys of the Black Mountains just a handful of miles north of the small town I now live in, but I don’t feel this is stretching things too far! 

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13 thoughts on “The hand of the poet

  1. An excellent review of an excellent book Chris. A few years ago, having read the book, I went to see the film with my daughter at the Taliesin Arts Centre. We got the last two seats in the front row! Unfortunately the film was made for digital screening and at that time the Taliesin didn’t have the technology to take advantage of this. Even so, the film should not have been affected in the way that we viewed it, i.e. dark and out of focus. It seemed a little odd like this but we still enjoyed it and both thought it did the book justice. In fact the dark, slightly blurry quality of it gave the film an atmosphere that fitted the story and the Welsh landscape quite well, though Wales is not always dark and wet and it was a shame not to be able to enjoy those scenes where the land was reflecting brighter weather. We knew that our viewing experience wasn’t the intended one as we had seen trailers with a more realistic colour rendering. Still, if you have not seen it and get the opportunity, I would recommend it – I would also like to see it again with the rendering that was intended.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the film, Alastair, as a couple of people have told me they were disappointed with it after having read the book. I’ve only seen the trailer and associated featurettes and, bearing in mind that the medium is not strong on revealing inner thoughts without a voiceover, I thought it looked rather faithful to the novel. Not surprising, I suppose, as Sheers had a hand in the screenplay.

      I’m also pleased you liked the review — I did try hard to suggest the flavour of it without revealing too much of the plot and certainly not the outcome.

    1. It really is a beautifully written novel, one I would have very much enjoyed even if I hadn’t chosen to live in the general area where it’s set! Do hope it’s all I’ve cracked it up to be. 🙂

  2. A book I have not heard of, much less read. I am in awe of the scope you have depicted – any one of the themes in isolation would be a challenge. To blend them thus must have required a spot of sheer (Sheers) genius!

    1. Do try and acquire a copy to read, if you can, Col — it would be worth the effort for its comforting portrayals of human decency in spite of the exigencies of war. Goodness knows we need a bit a comfort and faith in humankind in the face of so much news focusing on man’s inhumanity to man.

          1. I wish it was a state of mind only – but the behaviour of many of my ken and the barrage of disgusting actions from all sides one gets informed about on the media – little in the way of sweetness and light to be found, even actively sought.

  3. I have to say that it’s not often I read a book review and am inspired to read the subject matter – odd though that may seem. I’m sure it has more to do with the reviewer than the book. This is an exception. I loved reading the post as it touched me on various levels.

    Being a web-toed fenlander I find hills fascinating and, due to numerous holidays in Herefordshire and its surrounds, I have long since had a love affair with that area. I have fond memories of Hereford’s chained library, Offa’s Dyke … and the rolling Marches themselves. So much brilliant fiction has emanated from there it could easily be a post-subject in its own right. Equally. I have a fascination for maps. Rather like peeling layers from an onion, the longer one looks at a map the more secrets it reveals.

    As a footnote, I fully understand ‘Colonialist’s’ despair with the human race. I have often felt, on returning to the normality of my own household, that I am a different species from my fellow man. Perhaps it is the ‘comforting portrayals of human decency’ (as you eloquently put it) that may be found in books is one reason we turn to them so willingly.

    1. I echo your final thoughts, Steve, books can indeed be the balm we need when our window on the world reveals too much of what’s truly awful.

      I’ve always instinctively preferred hilly areas myself — it may be a premonition of localised flooding due to climatic changes that I’ve gone for uplands whether in a city, out in the countryside or, as now, in a market town. The beauty of the fens hasn’t touched me as yet, though I appreciate that their desolate nature and wildlife hold attractions for many. Anyway, do hope you get a chance to read Resistance, especially if you can picture the landscape it’s set in.

  4. Here’s a quick note to say a further ‘thanks for an excellent review’. I’m now reading ‘Resistance’ and am totally captivated by it. For me it’s one of those rare books which, once I’ve set it down, I eagerly look forward to my next reading session in which I may immerse myself into the tale once more.

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