Review of “Resistance” by Owen Sheers. Alt Hist blog. Sept 2012


All historical fiction is in some way “alternate history” fiction. As a genre however, alternate history is explicitly counterfactual. “Alt hist”, with its echoes of “alt country”, for me is something slightly different to alternate history per se , implying historical fiction that is a little off kilter and slightly obscurer than the usual run of historical fiction fare.

I have yet to see the film of this novel, but enjoyed the book greatly. Resistance is squarely alternate history in one way, but the counterfactual details are less important than the emotional landscape Sheers depicts.


Resistance by Owen Sheers


Resistance, made into a film released in 2011 is written by the Welsh poet Owen Sheers, notable also for being the Welsh Rugby Union’s first writer-in-residence. It is another entry in the what-if-the-Nazis-won-World-War-II category of the alternate history genre, but one much more concerned with the emotional and quotidian realities of occupation rather than with In an Afterword Sheers relates the background to the novel; the Auxiliary Units which were to mount clandestine resistance in the event of invasion (In Alt Hist 4, Johnathon Doering’s “Battalion 202” stories were based on the same Units).

In terms of the Alternate History, in Sheers’ story Stalin abandoned Moscow, leaving it and Stalingrad to fall to the Germans. More directly related to the premise, the D-Day landings failed, due in large part to the exposure of the elaborate deception of Operation Fortitude by a German sleeper agent in Britain – the Germans therefore realise that the invasion plan was for Normandy rather than Calais as Fortitude suggested. During the novel we read of Churchill’s departure for Canada, Roosevelt’s defeat in the 1944 Presidential election, the United States’ subsequent departure from the War in Europe, and R.A. Butler’s appointment as a quisling Prime Minister.

All this is far from Sheers’ focus. We begin with the sudden disappearance, shortly after the German invasion, of all the menfolk from a remote Welsh valley near the English border. It soon becomes evident that all have decamped to join the resistance. The focus is primarily on Sarah Lewis, a twenty-six year old woman from a neighbouring valley. She and the other women band together and decide their duty is to keep things going as if the men haven’t left.

This becomes impossible with arrival of a Wehrmacht patrol lead by Captain Wolfram. Wolfram is a familiar type in World War II fiction; the war- and Nazi- weary officer. For reasons which would stray into spoiler territory, shortly after the invasion the SS request that Wolfram form a patrol for a special mission. As this promises to take the men away from what promises to be a bloody battle for London, Wolfram picks five men who he feels are either particularly damaged or particular salvageable from the wreckage of war.

Sheers describes the patrol’s journey to Oxford and further through occupied Britain with a restraint that accentuates the casual horror of the Nazi approach to resistance. Most of the book, however, is taken up with the lives of the women in the valley, and the impact of the patrol’s arrival there. Sheer has a sure sense of place, and for the rhythms and realities of rural life. His prose is never overtly “lyrical”, but marked by a power and grace which sucks the reader in.

The third plot strand is the story of George, a young man who is recruited, in 1940, into the planned resistance. Declared medically unfit for combat as a cover, George has to endure the contempt of his family and others, and when invasion does arrive he witnesses the gradual slide towards collaboration. One of Sheers’ themes is the meaning of collaboration and the defining effects of the uniform. A severe snow-laden winter forces the women and the patrol into a co-existence which gradually becomes something more. Sarah, the most resistant to any compromise of her absent husband, attracts Captain Wolfram. The common humanity of the soldiers and the women is not strong enough to resist the forces that would reduce them to occupier and occupied.

I couldn’t help thinking that the story could easily have been told as “straight” historical fiction with a setting in France, say. It is interesting to look at the User reviews of the film on and note the stark divide between those who found it moving, poetic, haunting etc and those who were frankly bored. Those who prefer alternate history of a more “from above” nature, with great attention to the key moments that made the timeline go on a different tack, may not be overly impressed. For those who wish to enter a world familiar yet strange, homely yet terrifying, Resistance is highly recommended.

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