I Saw a Man

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


The Disappearance of Emile Zola

by Michael Rosen

Well, I haven’t finished reading this book, but have stalled somewhat and started reading other things.  So I think I had better review it anyway.

I bought this when it caught me eye in Blandford Books in Broadway – a nice little bookshop that I pop into on my frequent visits to Broadway in the Cotswolds (about 20 minutes from my home).  The bookseller reduced the price of the hardback, as the book was about to appear in paperback.  How could I refuse?

I am not sorry that I bought this book, despite struggling to finish it.  Rosen’s style is engaging, his comments affectionate and entertaining, and it is an aspect of Zola’s life that I had been completely ignorant about.  But there just doesn’t seem to be enough material in this brief episode in Zola’s life to warrant a whole book.  Much of the narrative reads like a list of the contents of letters to and from the great writer, as well as excerpts from diaries, in strict chronological order.  “On 16 February ….  On 18 February ….”.  Which, of course, reflects Rosen’s sources.  But he doesn’t seem to build on the material or even reflect on it very much.  Having recently read Claire Tomalin’s biography of a near-contemporary of Zola’s, Thomas Hardy, I felt that the Zola coming out of these pages is much less accessible than the Hardy portrayed in Tomalin’s book.  Of course, that was a whole life story (of a long life) whereas this book just depicts one year.

I have read only one of Zola’s works, Germinal, which I studied for A level.  I was also aware of Zola’s passionate involvement in the Dreyfus case.  Of the consequences – Zola’s decision to leave France after being convicted of libel – I had been completely ignorant, as I was of the fact that he chose to live his ‘exile’ in Britain.  Germinal left a lasting impression, but I suspect that this mini-biography will not.

Addendum – 8 September 2017

Well, I have finished the book and I have to admit, it gets better.  The last few chapters, and the postscript, made for fascinating reading, as Rosen examines Zola’s reception in Britain and the fallout from the Dreyfus case.  Shockingly, he has never yet been found innocent by a military court, though he was pardoned by the French president in December 1899.  Rosen convincingly makes the case that the Dreyfus affair has influenced the course of anti-semitism through the 20th century.  Zola’s response to it must also have influenced the engagement of other artists with current affairs in the succeeding years.

And finally, some 45 years after I first learned of it in a history lesson, I have read the text of the famous Zola article J’accuse, given in English translation as an Appendix to this book.  It is powerful and deliberately provocative, and fills me with a much greater admiration for Zola.

Swing Time

by Zadie Smith

Seen in am independent bookshop in Sherborne, where I bought a couple of children’s books and gave myself more time to consider whether to buy this.

It caught my eye again, a couple of weeks later, in Crediton Community Bookshop and I decided to buy it this time.  (On the rare occasions when I buy a new hardcopy book, rather than borrowing from the library, buying secondhand or downloading an electronic version, I always try to patronise small local bookshops rather than the big stores or online sellers.)

I had read the first three of Smith’s novels soon after they were published.  I enjoyed the freshness of White Teeth; didn’t make much of The Autograph Man; absolutely loved On Beauty.  Her fourth, NW, somehow passed me by.  So it was a treat to return to this author after a twelve-year absence.  Her writing style is super-confident and much more mature – unsurprisingly – than in her earlier novels.  The protagonists hail from a similar North London background to Smith’s own, and are born in 1975, as she was.  The narrator’s mother was born in Jamaica, as was the author’s.

But the story is imaginative and intricate.  Smith blends memories of a childhood immersed in learning dancing and watching old dance movies with the career of a personal assistant to a superstar in the music world, interweaving experiences in a West African village.  Perhaps it is a bit too much.  Would the story stand without the West African element?  Probably yes, but it is so much more exciting with this strand of the story.

The narrator is never given a name.  Through her eyes, we get to know her slightly unstable friend Tracey intimately, as well as the music star Aimee and her various acolytes.  I feel sad for the narrator, whose own life and needs seem to be entirely buried beneath the demanding and much more flamboyant people she associates with.  That said, she does not seem to be the most likeable person.  She floats on the surface of life, rather than engaging with it, and at the end of the novel she seems to have nothing to show for her life so far.

I think this is a book that will live with me for a while.  I read it quickly but quite intensely.  Maybe I will even read it again.  Or perhaps revisit White Teeth or On Beauty, which I think are still on my bookshelves (a sign that I appreciate them!).