Friday, May 30, 2008

Resistance by Owen Sheers

This book confounded me. It’s very poetic, which isn’t usually my thing, yet at the same time it’s a really compelling, tension-filled story. I had conflicting urges: to read quickly so I could see what happened next, or read slowly, to savor the beautiful language and descriptions.

Resistance is alternate history. Briefly, imagine what would have happened if D-Day were a total failure and in response the Nazis invaded Britain and set up an occupation, just as they occupied the low countries, for example. Resistance cells pop up all over Britain and the men of an isolated valley in Wales leave their farms and their families to work for the insurgency. Around the same time that the men disappear, a small group of German soldiers become stranded in the valley by the sudden onset of a harsh winter. Holing up in an abandoned house, the soldiers are grateful for the respite. The farm women, at first wary of the soldiers, soon realize that they won’t survive the winter without their help.

Sheers paints the German soldiers with a sympathetic brush. Their leader, Albrecht, is a medieval scholar who studied at Oxford before the war. The others are mostly shell-shocked boys who have already seen too much pain to be able to inflict any more. The women are a more varied lot. Eventually special bonds develop between certain pairs: Sarah and Albrecht dance carefully around their mutual attraction. An older woman and a young soldier connect through their shared interest in a horse.

But what happens when spring arrives? I was very nervous about how it would all come out. Would the soldiers be court marshaled for desertion? Would the women be labeled as collaborators? Where did the men of the valley disappear to? To my disappointment, Sheers mostly sidesteps the answers and creates an ending so ambiguous that readers disagree about what happened. (The New York Times reviewer interprets it one way; the Guardian reviewer concludes the opposite.) This is not a good thing, to leave your readers confused and unsatisfied. Maybe some people don’t mind, but I did.

Some reviewers point out that Philip Roth's book The Plot Against America dovetails nicely with Resistance. Roth's book is also alternate history, but set in an America where Franklin Roosevelt has lost the 1940 presidential election to Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. I haven't read this yet, and hadn't planned to, but now I might.

(Book 19, 2008)


Sam said...

I remember puzzling over the ending...and changing my mind at least once. :-)

irishgirlinchester said...

We at Hawarden Book Club were not sure about the meaning of the ending too! How do you see it?

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