1944. After the fall of Russia and the failed D-day landings, a German counter-attack lands on British soil. Within a month, half of Britain is occupied. The farmers of a secluded Welsh valley leave en masse to join the resistance, disappearing overnight, leaving their women folk to manage as best they can. Shortly thereafter, a small German patrol enters the valley, its mission a mystery. What is clear is that the women’s lives are in danger from German reprisals the moment the commanding officer realises where their husbands have gone. However, Albrecht Wolfram has another agenda. War-weary with no home to return to once the fighting is over (his parents and fiancee have all been killed in bombing raids), he persuades his men to maintain radio silence and to take this opportunity to remain hidden in the valley until the war is over.
The presence of the Germans places the women in a further predicament. Helping or cooperating with the Germans in any way will be seen as an act of collaboration and at first the two sides remain in a standoff. Then the winter arrives and the snow effectively cuts the valley off from the outside world. The Germans simply come to the aid of the women as they attempt to dig their flocks out from the snowdrifts. The women cannot afford to refuse the help – they understand that the farms could not continue to run without it and so, over the course of the winter a mutual understanding develops.
It is a natural and humane development. Black and white distinctions blur into grey. When, for example, does courage become cowardice? When does co-operation become collaboration? If indeed it does, in these pages at least. These were not questions to be asked while experiencing that harsh winter but they are certainly questions that arrive along with spring and summer. The farms cannot remain isolated if they are to continue to operate. But any contact with the outside world is now fraught with danger for both the women and the Germans soldiers.
Resistance is a slow burn of a novel building up to an inevitable showdown and, as a reader, I found myself as conflicted as the characters with regard to the outcomes I was hoping for.
Sheers, a poet brought up in rural Wales, combines his knowledge of farming and his skill with language to exceptional effect. In one scene an orphaned lamb is dressed in the skin of a dead one in an attempt to camoflague it. Will the dead lamb’s mother adopt the live one? It is a scene mirrored in the human drama. As their uniforms wear out, the Germans don the clothing of the absent farmers. Does this enable the women see beyond the uniform and accept them as men rather than enemy soldiers? Will it enable Albrecht to first establish a friendship and then a loving relationship with Sarah Lewis, the most passive-aggressive resister to the German occupation? Will he be able to persuade her to forget her beloved Tom, a man who after all is said and done left his wife to take her own chances against the vagaries of this alternative history.
I was, therefore, first in the queue to see the recently released film, as the book engendered a yearning to see the Welsh landscape for myself. As Sheers had a hand in the filmscript, it preserves intact the trajectory of the novel though the ending is less ambiguous. The film is on the slow side though it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise. The dramatic tension in the novel relates to the psychological standoff between the men and the women and the establishment of an uneasy truce between human beings seeking to survive a situation not of their choosing. In the novel, the build-up to an agricultural show consists of an argument between Maggie (spokesperson for the wives) and Wolfram. Another, very uneasy pact detailing the management of the risk is established. As Maggie, her horse and its groom (a German soldier disguised as a Welsh farmer) walk over the hills, the unease in the microcommunity of the Olchon valley is palpable. The film is simply not as heartstoppingly tense. On the plus side, sections of the film are in German with subtitles and Andrea Riseborough’s performance as the sandpaperish Sarah is superb.