This cautionary tale of what might have been begins in 1944, when the fate of England hangs in the balance after the
Allied advance to defeat the German forces on the Normandy coastline has failed. With the Nazis having made landfall on the British coastline, there are rumors that the Duke of Windsor will be returned since the King and Queen,
along with a defeated Winston Churchill, have sailed for Canada.
London has become a shell of a city: gutted, starved, and shattered, more of a ruin than a capital, its population halved, scattered or killed. This is Hitler's greatest wish
- that Britain be bought to its knees and then be made strong again and allied with Germany against the capitalist Americans in the West and the Bolsheviks of the East.
For the Olchon farming community, situated deep in the heart of Wales, this is bleak news. Sarah Lewis is particularly attentive to the scattered BBC Britain radio broadcasts that have been filtering into the valley every day for the last few weeks, especially when one morning she wakes to find Tom, her husband, suddenly gone from her bedside.
Rumored to have gone off to fight in a well-organized resistance group, Tom's absence has left Sarah, along with the other wives of the valley, to cope in a world gone sour. Sarah's neighbors, Maggie Jones and the fragile Mary Griffiths, embark on an empty
reconnaissance for some sign or hidden message. Unfortunately, their long rides up
into the hills forever turn up a blank answer. Only Maggie knows with a terrible certainty that their husbands have gone and are never coming back.
Sarah is at first reluctant to accept the story until she sees the pamphlet,
The Countryman's Diary – 1944, and is forced to realize that Tom was who she thought he was. If the
Diary is anything to go by, the men left the valley because of the invasion to perform their secret duties, to sabotage, and perhaps to kill. Now the women are left to keep turning the valley's cycle of birth, sowing and harvesting, while their husbands are away fighting - or worse, dead.
When a party of German soldiers led by the Wehrmacht Captain Albrecht Wolfram enters the valley, knocking at the doors
and peering though the windows, the women are finally forced to confront the new reality of their situation. Eventually setting up their headquarters at the deserted Olchon Court, the educated and English-speaking Albrecht forms a hesitant friendship with Sarah as he settles in with his men "like a wondering band of players."
Albrecht visits Sarah's farmhouse at night and charms her with Bach cello suites played on his gramophone,
while seventeen-year-old George Bowen is commissioned by Tommy Atkins to spy on the troop movements and activities of the German home guard. A naïve George is made aware of the British government's plan for a resistance movement in the event of a German invasion; if he was willing,
he could be part of that listening and watching machine, running messages, and observing enemy troop movements.
Soon George is witnessing men, possibly those of the Olchon Valley's
resistance movement, going to the slaughter, while Sarah, Maggie, and Mary, with the help of the German soldiers, try to keep their farms going as the harsh and unforgiving winter fast approaches.
The war is beginning to transform England, turning it into a different country the contours of which the characters
trace through local newspapers and the sporadic and untrustworthy BBC radio reports.
In a profoundly disturbing literary experience, Sheers passionately writes of this isolated Welsh mountain community, offering up passages of great insight into the way these people live and work. Each chapter steadily unfolds, moving between Albrehet's haunting war recollections and Sarah's young life before she married Tom.
The author serves up some shockingly specific accounts of a world where the Americans are in retreat and England has been left to an untimely fate under the control of the Nazis.
With a narrative that only occasionally stalls, Sheers poetic sentences mostly churn with a fluid and magnetic energy.
The detailed descriptions of the land he so clearly loves provide some of the most affecting highlights of the book. In the end, both enemy, ally, and even collaborator come off as quite sympathetic, a
brilliant feat in a story whose characters are caught up in a horrific war devastatingly re-imagined by this talented author.