Owen Sheers: Hard to resist

<p>If the Normandy landings had been repelled and the German army had invaded Britain, thousands of ordinary men would have gone underground to join a resistance force. That&#39;s the compelling hook of Owen Sheers&#39; debut novel <em>Resistance</em> (Faber, June).</p><p>Sheers chooses to set this counter-factual story not amid high-level military and politics, but in a tiny Welsh border community. One morning the women wake up to find all their husbands have vanished; then a German patrol arrives, which is snowed in for the long winter of 1944. The groups must rely on each other to survive, as the story probes the nature of occupation and resistance, as well as of absence and separation.</p><p>These latter themes also feature in Sheers&#39; acclaimed poetry (<em>The Blue Book, Skirrid Hill</em>) and his travelogue The Dust Diaries, which was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize and won the Welsh Book of the Year Award 2005. He brings a poetic level of crafting to Resistance, but it serves a driving storyline, as the fate of both occupier and occupied hangs in the balance.</p><p>Sheers grew up in Abergavenny on the edge of the Black Mountains, and returned frequently to research the novel. &quot;I suddenly realised that I wanted to write against a landscape that I know,&quot; he says. &quot;I set out to capture the language of the farming community, and also the unspoken language of those hills.&quot;</p><p>He first heard the story of farmers primed to join the resistance when he was working for a builder one summer before university. &quot;I was fascinated by this idea that the nation would fall back on people who knew the land as a vital tactical tool.&quot;</p><p>Then in 2001 he heard a BBC Radio 4 &quot;Today&quot; programme interview with George Vater, who as a young man had been recruited into a network of Abergavenny locals who would spy on an occupying German force. &quot;He said that he&#39;d been told that a member of the resistance could expect to live a maximum of two weeks after an invasion, and something in the tone of his voice suggested a massive gulf between his generation and ours. I was especially interested in the absolute secrecy--this incredible idea that wives and parents would not know, and what that would do to an isolated community.&quot;</p><p>So Sheers imagined these abandoned wives, and what would happen if they were joined by an exhausted band of German soldiers. &quot;Two disparate groups are forced into a fragile harmony, and start to lead themselves down paths away from war. But the course has been set.&quot;</p><p>The lead characters are curious young Sarah, desperately clinging to the hope that her husband will return, and Albrecht, an intelligent and sympathetic German captain who is plotting an escape from the brutality. As they grow closer, the outside world looms dangerously. &quot;Can you extract yourself from the past, from what you&#39;ve done?&quot; Sheers asks. &quot;I wanted the book to focus down to a final scene where Sarah and Albrecht have to make final choices, and face up to their different kinds of personal resistance.&quot;</p>