Discovering the Olchon Valley

John Osmond celebrates the first novel, now filmed, by one of Wales leading young writers

A farmer, faced with an orphaned lamb will cover it in the flayed skin of a dead one in the hope that the mother will take to it, assuming from the smell that it belongs to her. If this does not succeed then a sheep dog is put amongst the flock in the hope that the ewe’s instinct will work to protect the newborn from the threat.

Such a scene is played out in Owen Sheer’s ambitious first novel Resistance, and reprised as a film which has been shown at Chapter Arts Centre and elsewhere in recent weeks. It acts as an allegory for its themes of threat and resistance in a war-torn corner of Wales. The year is 1944 and the Allied invasion of Normandy has failed. The Germans respond with an invasion of their own, this time landing successfully on the southern beaches of England. A bitter struggle ensues and a German patrol washes up in the isolated Olchon valley in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales close to Hereford and the border. Here they discover a small group of farms which are devoid of men. The farmers have all joined a resistance movement. Left behind are their wives struggling to keep body and soul and their farms together.

The German patrol, veterans of Stalingrad, the campaign in France and the English landing, have a task in the Olchon Valley which only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. They settle in and attempt to forge connections with the women which are at first rebuffed. However, as winter comes and deep snow cuts the valley off from the rest of the world the women come to rely on the German soldiers. They help out with the farm work, making use of the clothes (the flayed skins?) of the vanished farmers. The soldiers begin to dream of a life reborn. But beyond the valley the war threatens.

Covering a lamb with the dead skin of another is, of course, a cunning device. So, too, is Owen Sheers’ plot, relying as it does on the sudden abandonment of four farmers’ wives in the isolated Olchon valley. As with the fate of an orphaned lamb, the uncertainty that continues through the novel is whether this essential device will work.

Owen Sheers, who was brought up in Abergavenny, stumbled across plans for a Resistance movement in 1940 while working some years ago in the Llanthony Valley which is next to the Olchon. He discovered that farmers in the area had been given caches of arms and hid them in underground bunkers in anticipation of an invasion. All this is described in some detail in an annex to the book which includes a photograph of a meeting of the Monmouthshire Auxiliary Units Association, taken in 1945.

So the novel is rooted in some documentary reality. The rest, of course, is imagined, though the Olchon valley is real enough and realised with such intense, continuous prose that it becomes, in effect, the leading character of the book. Sheers certainly writes very well, with a luminosity that betrays his poet’s eye. As he has explained, whatever the genre the art of creative writing is essentially the same: “It is a process of shaping, of carving away at too much material until only that matter which matters remains.”

In this dimension he has certainly succeeded with Resistance. In terms of pace, plot and dialogue it is remarkably poised for a debut novel. Even so, one is left at the end asking whether the essential device that prompts its theme, the sudden abandonment of the women, is convincing.

Ultimately, for the novel to work at its psychological core, there should be a feeling of  authenticity around this question. Certainly, in the book it is constantly asked by the women themselves. There is a suggestion at one point that they were drugged in some way on the eve of the men’s departure to ensure they overslept and so remained oblivious of the event. At the end the novel’s main character, Sarah Lewis, resists the advances of the leader of the German patrol, and leaves the Olchon in a desperate lone search for her missing husband.

Because these circumstances seems so improbable it leads to the question: what is this novel for? Coincidentally, I read most of it while staying in the Cognac region of France which experienced the full horrors of the German occupation and the French resistance during the second World War. Sheers’ novel certainly has the virtue of forcing us to try and imagine what a German occupation of Britain might have been like. In doing so we can begin to understand one of the reasons why Britain remains so distant from the rest of Europe and unwilling to participate fully in its unification.

More recently Sheers has working on a novel set in New York, prompted by time he spent there as a writer in residence. I hope he continues to hone his skills and return one day to give us a novel that is sorely needed as we grope towards political maturity. This would help us understand what is happening in contemporary Wales through the fully realised lives of people who can explain to us ourselves.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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