Review: Adar Mud by Sian Rees
I first came across the village of Oradour-sur-Glane many years ago while researching historical events as inspiration for a dramatic work of my own, so when I saw Sian Rees’s third and latest novel advertised, I was aware of what I was letting myself in for.
Despite this, going into the story knowing that just a handful of the characters would survive to the epilogue did not lessen the emotional impact of this novel. Be advised, if you are unfamiliar with the history there are spoilers below.
The story beings in the sleepy French village of Oradour-sur-Glane with a new life – the birth of Elodie and Louis Compain’s first child.
Although born during one of the most turbulent, bloodiest months of the Second World War, the new parents are not unduly worried about their daughter’s future – as under the rule of the Vichy government their small hometown has remained largely unaffected by the horrors of war.
The opening chapters are filled with almost idyllic scenes of a rural French community – the illicit but tender romance of a middle-aged couple, children playing together on the river’s edge, a mother preparing her daughter to take part in the Corpus Christi procession the following day, priests breaking bread and sharing a bottle of wine with the village doctor…
But this is June 1944 and the tide of the war has just turned.
Emboldened by Allied success in Normandy, the local Maquis strike a blow of their own against the Nazis, which leads to a tit-for-tat battle between resistance forces and the occupying army, and the villagers of Oradour-sur-Glane pay the price for what may have been an act of inhumane spite disguised as vengeance, or equally, a simple misunderstanding.
On June the tenth, 1944, soldiers of the Second Panzer Regiment rolled into Oradour and rounded up its inhabitants – all but a handful who presciently hid and made their escape, some forewarned by a member of the local maquis.
Over six hundred men, women and children were rounded up by the Nazis under the pretext of having their identity papers examined. The men were sent in one direction, the women and children in another.
The men were locked in various agricultural buildings, the women and children imprisoned in the local church. The men were mowed down by machine guns, the women and children choked by smoke bombs, and then shot at.
The church and the barns were set on fire, still filled with living people, and the rest of the village set aflame to smoke out any people in hiding.
The Nazis looted wine cellars and shops and are depicted as celebrating the massacre, until a higher-up commander heard of the savagery and belatedly ordered the regiment to cease killing.
After they departed the few people who escaped the village made contact with the outside world, or returned home to find a handful of survivors who had managed to crawl out through windows or chisel exits in stone walls.
All the survivors and their rescuers could do was flee the smouldering ruins of the village, numb with shock.
That’s it. That’s the story.
As far as plots go, it is unremittingly bleak; and hanging over you as you read is the terrible knowledge that all of this is true.
The massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane happened almost exactly as depicted by Rees, and 642 people (197 men, 240 women and 205 children) died at the hands of the Nazis – virtually the entire population of the town brutally murdered on a single day.
In her background notes, Rees explains that she depicted a combination of real and fictional people, picking her information from various, sometimes contradictory sources.
Her cast is a large one (64 characters, a mixture of historical figures and her own creations), necessitating a cast list at the beginning of the book.
The chosen 64 represent just a tenth of the number murdered by the Germans, but even so, it is still an immense number of people to become acquainted with in fewer than 200 pages, and as often happens during larger ensemble casts, there is not room for every character to be distinctly memorable.
Rees moves from one family or household to the next with an almost filmic detachment, never lingering on one person for more than a few pages.
Some authors who have written novels about Oradour have chosen to focus on one or two key individuals, much as the Girl in the Red Coat becomes an emotional focal point during Schindler’s List; but Rees’s decision to introduce a wide cross-section of Oradour’s victims is equally impactful because the villagers whose fates we follow represent everyman.
All human life is here from the new born babe to the bed-bound elderly.
At some point in this novel, I promise you will see your own self represented here, and you will imagine concealing your own children in a hole in the wall and going to your own death so that they remain undiscovered; you will imagine yourself hugging your spouse or partner one last time, you will shudder imagining how the Nazis would have mishandled a disabled, infirm or elderly member of your own family, or wondered how you would have behaved in the same hopeless situation.
You find yourself hoping that the situation was as Rees depicted, and that the majority of people went to their deaths unaware of the horror about to befall them.
Rees does not shy away from the violent reality – the reader is in the church with the women and children as smoke bombs are thrown in through the window, in the barn as the bullets cut through the men’s bodies.
One of the most visceral scenes is when a father returns home to Oradour, enters the church and finds himself knee-deep in ashes of burnt furniture and the corpses of women and children. It is not a story for those who prefer their books to have a happy ending.
Reading ‘Adar Mud’, I found myself frequently on the verge of tears. It is probably the most harrowing book I have ever read in Welsh; and I know that the story of Oradour-sur-Glane will stay with me for a long time.
I am aware that this does not sound like much of an endorsement, but I strongly recommend ‘Adar Mud’ as a skilfully-written, emotionally engaging, immensely powerful and important book.
A book which deserves to be widely read, because it contains within it both a reminder and a warning about what can happen if we cease to oppose those who devalue human life and rights. As visitors to the ruins of Oradour are exhorted today: Souviens-toi. Remember.
Postscript: Readers of ‘Adar Mud’ and those wishing to learn more about Oradour-Sur-Glane may find the website www.oradour.info helpful.
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