A Novel
Owen Sheers
(Anchor Books)
Those of us who lived through WWII never imagined that the outcome was so close. The successful defense of England was made possible by Hitler's paradoxical decision not to invade in 1940. Historians agree he could easily have conquered the island.

In Resistance, the Japanese are winning all across the Pacific. The Russians have lost the battles at Stalingrad and Moscow. The Allied invasion at Normandy has failed. The Germans have taken England: their decision came about because of one man "in his bedsit" who made contact with Wehrmacht Intelligence. The German victory

    was down to one man. Not a general or a chief-of-staff, but a long-time sleeper agent who'd discovered the English elaborate deceptions ... a massive fake army of inflatable tanks, cardboard bombers, and plywood landing craft stationed at Dover facing Calais.

"A dummy invasion force, complete with rows of speakers broadcasting the sound of a mobilising army across the narrowest point of the Channel. It had almost worked."

Soon enough, the Germans arrive at the mouth of the valley of Ochon in Wales. The men have disappeared, presumably to join the guerrillas organized by the retreating English government (Churchill has fled to Canada). The women have been left behind in the bucolic valley with their sheep, horses and dogs. Under direct orders from the SS, Captain Albrecht Wolfram arrives with five troops.

They will spend the winter in Ochon ... first as outsiders, then, slowly, bit by bit, moving closer to the abandoned wives. They will help with the milking, the tending of sheep, caring for the horses. The world has forgotten them; they have forgotten the world (and the war).

With the Nazis running England, with their leaders gone and the BBC fading out, the defeated English are bitter and restive. Leaflets appear with the notation, "By Permission of the Office of the Reich Sub-Area Commandant for the Western Region." The defeated government's fading radio signals advise: "Collaboration is not an option."

The soldiers blend in with the Abergavenny countryside, get involved in a snowbound idyll: "Opposite them on the other side of the valley, the setting sun had cast a broad band of amber along the ridge and upper slopes of the Black Hill."

    The sky behind the hill was lit an impossible blue. Together they watched this strip of evening light tighten, a seam of burnished earth compressed between the land and sky, deepening in colour as it narrowed until just the hill's long spine shone bronze and everything below it was night.

§     §     §

Sheers' vision of Welsh pastoral life is faultless, as is the prospect of men who are kind when they are not killing, but an editor's red pencil might have excised the more lugubrious notes of Ochon valley wildlife and herbage. Author Sheers also shows a Pat Barkeresque twitch when it comes to the Beast of the Bedchamber, viz.: "The way he moved above her, the weight of him. The way he'd groaned as if in pain,"

    the way he suddenly shivered the length of his body, the muscles of his back quivering like a horse's flank under the touch of summer flies.

"The way he'd shrunk away from her afterwards, like sand through an hourglass." Horse's flank, sand, hourglass: spare us.

But it's a good novel, even gentle --- far more gentle than the touchstone of all WWII history revisions: Robert Harris' stupendous Fatherland.

--- Lolita Lark
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