I Saw a Man | Owen Sheers | Book Review

I SAW A MAN, by Welsh author and poet Owen Sheers, is a book that really shouldn’t be judged by its cover, it got Kernel Fiona, it got me and I do believe the overseas cover down below of the article more represents the tone of the book. The cover just below this text to me has an undertone of menace and scariness, combined with the cover text indicates something possibly supernatural. It is in fact (in Kernel Fi’s words) is “a stirring treatise on grief and its unpredictable manifestations.” I SAW A MAN is out now from our mates at Allen and Unwin Book Publishers, it will be available in most book outlets or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Fiona’s thoughts on this somewhat powerful book. All the best………………JK. 

 

I Saw a Man Book Cover image

 

BY FIONA FYFE

For some reason I assumed this book was a supernatural thriller. Perhaps the title misled me or the spooky-looking stairway that’s depicted on the cover. It is instead a poignant commentary on the nature of grief and how a tragic event can reach far beyond the immediate players.

Owen Sheers is a Welsh poet, author and playwright. His first novel, RESISTANCE and two subsequent works, THE WORLDS OF CHARLIE F and THE GOSPEL OF US, are all concerned with the effects of war. I SAW A MAN also examines the reverberations of post-traumatic stress on service personnel. While only a relatively minor part of this novel, the American Daniel whose job it is to perform drone-strikes on international targets, is inadvertently swept into the wake of the protagonist’s grief after he accidentally kills his wife.

Without divulging too much of the storyline and spoiling the experience, in reviewing I SAW A MAN it is necessary to adopt a somewhat mysterious approach so that certain revelations are not disclosed. Sheers has written this book with a slow unravelling of plot. The structure of the book is unorthodox in that it starts from the middle with forays into the past and future along the way.

English-born journalist Michael Turner has recently returned from New York after having written a highly successful non-fiction novel about two drug-dealing brothers. He meets and marries Caroline who is a foreign correspondent and war reporter. They initially retreat to an idyllic country house in Wales assuming that they will start a family and be content for their respective careers to take a back seat. Unexpectedly Caroline is recalled to Pakistan to report on terrorist activity in the region. She is killed by an American drone-strike that has been carried out by Major Daniel McCullen half a world away.

 

I Saw a Man Owen Sheers Author image

 

In his despair, Michael sells their Welsh home and rents a unit in London overlooking Hampstead Heath. It is there after almost a year that he starts to feel the first inklings of normalcy returning. Befriended by his neighbours, Joshua and Samantha Nelson and their two young daughters, Michael allows himself to imagine a life without Caroline. The new friendship ignites at a rapid pace and before long Michael has been subsumed into his neighbour’s family and the complex world of their marriage.

Within the boundaries of his new life, he discovers a certain solace although he still feels as if his grief will forever set him apart from others who haven’t been touched by its cruelty. In many ways I SAW A MAN is a melancholy reflection on “the rippling affects of grief” and the fleeting nature of love and joy. What does it mean to lose the one person you hold dearest? Who else will that loss affect?

For a while Michael’s friendship with the Nelson’s offers him the opportunity to heal. He feels comfortable within their circle and routines. It’s not until one Saturday afternoon when a shocking tragedy occurs that everything is turned on its head and Michael must grapple with the burden of a terrible secret and a renewed grief.

Sheers is an insightful writer and explores the topic of bereavement with sensitivity. He expertly examines the emotional consequences of guilt and suffering and what it means to mourn. The storyline does take a while to get going, however, and this initially gives the reader a sense of where is this headed? I was primarily frustrated by the slowness of pace only to be greatly rewarded as the book progressed.

 

I Saw a Man Book Cover image

 

I did feel that given Sheers’ penchant for writing about the military he was compelled to work this theme into I SAW A MAN. Although the storyline isn’t predominantly concerned with air strikes and ammo, there is definitely the war on terror issue hovering in the background. Perhaps Sheers is not yet ready to ween himself off this topic even though he is highly adept at appraising the genre of human drama. It is the drone-strike aspects of this book that are actually far less satisfying than his commentary on tragedy and loss.

The character Josh is both boyish and boorish. A stock-broker with a desire for power he doesn’t always make the transition from executive to family man with ease. When he is faced with his own crisis he is not as capable as Michael at managing his feelings. Instead he finds comfort in the bottle. His wife Samantha is far more competent at dealing with personal chaos even if that means withdrawing from the world for a time. She is emotional yet stoic and she is above all else a mother, first and foremost.

Sheers manages to encapsulate some of the ways we all feel at certain times in our lives. His description of how one character identifies with his new home really resounded with me. “ A first-timer’s flat. Neat, minimal. A starting place. But on moving in it had…felt like an end.” His description of Michael imagining his dead wife has returned in spirit is nothing short of moving – “he leant forward, his hand outstretched. But as he did Caroline began to haze. She was fading, leaving him already. It was like a second death, watching her go…. Her smile holding as she left him, as if he, not her, had been the ghost.”

In many ways, Sheers has written a stirring treatise on grief and its unpredictable manifestations. Significantly though, he has conducted a beautiful and subtle exploration of the elusive nature of happiness and the transient, fragile temperament of deep love. Grab your tissues.

 

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Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.