Reviews > Published on June 8th, 2015

Bookshots: 'I Saw A Man' by Owen Sheers

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Title:

I Saw A Man

Who wrote it?

Owen Sheers: poet, playwright and novelist. His first novel, Resistance, became a film starring Andrea Riseborough. He lives in Wales, played rugby at county level, and in 2011 became the first writer in residence for Welsh Rugby Union. I Saw A Man is not about rugby however.

Plot in a Box:

Michael Turner, successful non-fiction author and failed fiction author, loses his war-reporter wife Caroline to a drone attack in Pakistan. He finds solace through his friendship with Josh and Samantha, his neighbours. But tragedy hasn’t finished with Michael yet.

Invent a new title for this book:

Confessions

Read this if you like:

Andrew Miller, Ian McEwan, Andrew O’Hagan

Meet the book’s lead:

Michael Turner: a good guy, but not a really good guy, if you know what I mean.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Joseph Fiennes has already starred in Sheers’ one man play Unicorns, Almost, so he’s a natural choice.

I’m going for Benedict Cumberbatch.

Setting: would you want to live there?

A cottage in the Welsh countryside: too many sheep.

A house in a leafy part of London: not enough sheep.

I know, I’m fussy.

What was your favorite sentence?

This paragraph captures the essence of the story better than any other:

At first Daniel hadn’t understood. He had confessed, he’d stepped out of the shadows. Wasn’t that enough? But as he’d worked at Sally’s that day, clearing out the stables, restocking the kitchen, cutting back the ferns along the brook, he’d come to see that no, it wasn’t enough. To confess and leave was easy. To confess and stay, to remain circling over your deed, to hunger after the detail of it, that was something else.

The Verdict: 

Sheers is currently Professor in Creativity at Swansea University and has a bio which sounds like an MFA student’s fever dream of future success, all awards and famous names and documentaries about Dylan Thomas. And he’s only forty. So you can forgive me for approaching  I Saw A Man with my teeth slightly clenched, expecting a heavy dose of High Literaryness, but after a chapter or two, my right arm, tensed in book-chucking readiness for the first mention of an art gallery or for someone to quote poetry at someone else, began to relax.

I Saw A Man is actually really good.

Not good in a world-changing way, but good in the prose and good in the details and very good in the slow careful building of character. Michael, we learn early on, has made his name from a book called BrotherHoods, the kind of non-fiction which mines the lives of poor people for the entertainment of educated people. Sheers doesn’t set out this moral murkiness quite so baldly, but when Michael starts to not return the calls of one of the people he used as material, now incarcerated, we get a pretty clear picture of where the fracture lines in this particular personality might run.

Then Michael falls in love. Then his wife is killed, a victim of one of those drone attacks we read about but can’t quite imagine being subjected to, the kind where wedding parties are obliterated in seconds because someone somewhere got a shaky tip that a low ranking officer of a minor terrorist tentacle maybe probably might be in one of the cars.

Michael reacts to this by moving from Wales to London and spending a lot of time with his neighbours, Josh and Samantha, who welcome his company in the way couples do when they know as soon as they’re alone together they will start fighting. Josh and Samantha have two young daughters. Josh (American, working in finance) has trouble keeping it in his pants. Michael starts getting letters from the man who pulled the trigger on the drone, now guilt-stricken at the discovery that he took an innocent life.

Then Michael does something really stupid—and this is where the story gets interesting, because what Sheers wants to explore is how our ideas about ourselves differ from the reality of what we do when we have to make difficult moral choices. We’d all like to believe we’d do the Right Thing if heroism was required, but very few of us appreciate just how craven we’d become if we had to admit a dirty secret. This is Michael’s journey: from a man who thinks he is good, to a man who knows better, accompanied on the way by Josh and Daniel, the ex-pilot who killed his wife, who also learn better what they can expect of themselves in a crisis.

This is fine, dense, immersive stuff, and my only criticism is that this is a book heavily skewed towards a male point of view. Sheers tries hard to give life to his female characters – in particular Samantha, the beleaguered wife of Josh – but like so many women in fiction, she’s only visible in terms of her relationships with men, as though she is a stencil and they are the paint. Caroline, the war reporter, does have life and heft of her own. It interested me that she is the one who Sheers chooses to kill.

I haven’t read Resistance but now I probably will. I’ll also wait for Sheers’ next book to see if he can make the characters who struggle with moral issues female.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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