by Owen Sheers
I know Owen Sheers as a contemporary Welsh poet. I had not appreciated that he has also written a couple of novels, until I read a review of this book on the Bookertalk blog about a week ago. So I picked out his book on my next visit to our local library in Bishops Cleeve.
I admit to being a little apprehensive; I have read novels by other poets* and found the language too ‘poetic’ and disruptive to the narrative flow. The first few pages of this book were beginning to confirm my prejudices – but I quickly realised that any descriptive flourishes served the story and the characters, rather than the other way around. It captured my imagination from the start.
The story unfolds gradually, as we get to know each of the three main characters (Michael, Josh and Samantha) and something of their ‘back story’. In the case of Michael, his recent past defines him, as he grieves for his wife. We learn about this death in the first few pages, but the details of her death unfold slowly, and it is not until another character, Daniel, is introduced – about a third of the way into the book – that we learn the circumstances of Caroline’s death. Another event, another accident, no less cataclysmic in Michael’s life, takes place as the action of this story unfolds. There is a huge build-up, with Michael at first innocuously and then questionably exploring his neighbours’ house. The reader knows something is going to happen (and would know this, even if the book’s cover hadn’t warned us of an “event that changed all their lives”). It does happen, but not until halfway through the novel. The author keeps the reader in suspense as Michael enters each room of his neighbours’ house in turn. Is there someone else in the house? Will Michael be surprised by someone returning, or an intruder? Is something going to happen to Michael? What actually happens was a surprise to me.
That Sheers manages to keep the story together, and keep us interested in the characters, in the lead-up to this event as well as in its aftermath in the second half of the book, is a great credit to him as a writer. I found myself wanting to keep reading, feeling the experiences of each of the main characters as they come to terms with their choices, their actions and the unpleasant and unexpected but to some extent ‘accidental’ consequences.
This book reminded me in many ways of Ian McEwan’s Saturday – but don’t let this put you off if you are not a McEwan fan. It has made me want to go back and read that book again, to see how close the two stories and the author’s treatment of them really are. I suspect that the similarities will be less obvious than my memory suggests. I haven’t read other reviews (apart from the one mentioned at the start of this one) and so don’t know whether other readers have drawn the same parallel.
I Saw a Man was a satisfying read. I will look out for more of Sheers’ writing – and take a closer look at his poetry too.
*In the Wolf’s Mouth and The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds fall into this trap, in my view