What if… the Germans had bested the Allies in the Normandy Invasion? What if… the Germans had then crossed the English Channel, marching into and through England and Wales as conquerors?
Owen Sheers makes this alternate history scenario seem all too real in his wonderful debut novel. In it, Sarah Lewis and the other women of the isolated Olchon Valley in Wales awaken one morning in September of 1944 to find the men gone—their husbands, their sons, all are missing without a trace except for one tantalizing clue as to why they left. The women team up to keep their farms going, to continue their lives as if the men were away at the market in the next valley.
But as winter comes, so do the Germans. A small patrol arrives led by Albrecht Wolfram, who, beyond securing the valley, is on a secret mission. The soldiers and the women are understandably wary of each other, but as the occupiers relax now that they are off the front lines, and as winter deepens and the women need help with their livestock that only the men can provide, both sides open up… slightly, tentatively, and not without missteps as they learn that everyone has lost much in this war. Albrecht’s sensibilities change over the winter, and with the hardening of the landscape come reinvigorating thoughts and emotions. He finds himself drawn towards Sarah, the youngest wife of the group, who is herself struggling with her emotions towards her missing husband.
This is a beautifully written, haunting story; the reader can feel the women’s heartbreak and sorrow and can see the striking Olchon Valley, which is alternately threatening and heavenly. Sheers has won awards for his poetry and non-fiction, and more plaudits are in his future for this astounding novel.