I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

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Reviewed by Annabel

To many, Sheers is primarily known as a Welsh poet. His 2005 collection Skirrid Hill was acclaimed, and he has presented some poetry programmes on the television, and wrote the play The Passion – a passion play for Port Talbot which starred Michael Sheen as Jesus.  In 2013 Faber published his verse-drama about three young lads from Bristol going off to Afghanistan entitled Pink Mist which starts with them going to Catterick for training:

Not going someplace but leaving somewhere.
Getting out, moving on, away from here.

While I’ve not read the entire story, the preoccupations of Pink Mist certainly seem to have informed his fourth novel too and I Saw a Man begins with a provocative beginning:

The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelsons’ house empty – stepped through their back door.

Then we are left on tenterhooks, wondering what happened for well over half of the novel. This book is not the thriller you might expect from that opening sentence —  thriller-ish, maybe, but only in passing. It is, however, a dramatic exploration of guilt and grief in the lives of three men.

Michael Turner is the author of the bestselling book Brotherhood which explored the lives of a pair of Costa Rican minor hoodlums in the Manhattan projects.

When, after months of such research, Michael felt he’d seen and heard enough – and it was always a feeling more than a knowing, a sense at the edges of his vision – he would leave his subjects’ lives as suddenly as he’d entered them. Taking their stories to his desk in his SoHo apartment he’d immerse himself again, this time borrowing a novelistic style to disappear himself not just from his subjects’ lives, but also from the paragraphs he wrote about them. … Michael was never there.  Just the characters remained, living their lives in third person through the hours of the city as if through the pages of a novel.

His style became the antithesis of gonzo journalism; an eradication of the writer in writing.

He had returned to the UK to work on his next subject – studying a controversial neurosurgeon, and met and married Caroline, a deep insertion documentary producer. They decide to change their lives and move to a country cottage, trying to perfect a rural idyll – until Caroline is offered a documentary in Pakistan. He hopes she won’t go, but she can’t not take the job, ‘”I owe you one, Mikey boy,” she said.’ However, she won’t return, killed by a US drone targeting the group the team were filming.

Racked by grief, Michael moves to Hampstead in north London after winding up their affairs in the country; he needs a different environment to help him move on. His neighbours are the Nelsons: Josh – a banker at Lehman Brothers, his wife Samantha and their children, and he is very grateful to them adopting him, easing him back into a more sociable kind of life.

The Nelsons are the archetype of the perfect family – on the outside. But under the surface, there are insecurities and guilty secrets which will help drive the drama.

In a parallel strand to the stories of Michael and Caroline, Michael and the Nelsons we meet Daniel. A USAF pilot based in the desert outside Vegas who flew the remote drone that killed Michael’s wife. He is racked with guilt at having bombed the TV crew and in a spirit of confessional openness he starts writing to Michael, who finds himself drawn in to finding out more about the man who unwittingly killed his wife.

Feeling that we now know Michael and the key relationships in his life, the aforesaid event finally happens. It was a real shock, not what I was expecting at all and it will tie Michael and Josh together in a partnership that will also tear them apart. I can’t say any more.

Sheers’s style of writing owes much to his poetry. Lots of short sentences, careful choice of vocabulary and metaphor. Not everyone will like this, but I did. I also thought the choice of epigraph from Antigonish by Hugh Mearns was perfect – it echoes the book’s cover.

The success of this novel is the way that Sheers builds up the characters of the three men (although Daniel’s thread dwindles away). We should hate them for what happens in their lives, but although all three have flaws, we know that they are basically good inside. We can understand them and their actions as, to quote from Hamlet, ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.’

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Owen Sheers, I Saw a Man (Faber & Faber: London, 2015).9780571317721, 320pp.,  hardback.

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