“The event that changed all their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June.” That’s the opening line of Owen Sheers’s new novel; what exactly that event was, you’ll have to read 170 pages to discover. The Welsh writer’s second novel, I Saw a Man is billed as a thriller, a new departure for him.
Certainly, suspense builds. We follow Michael, a writer of “novelistic” non-fiction, attempting to rebuild his life after his wife is killed in Pakistan. Sheers cuts between three strands: a lithe account of Michael’s relationship with Caroline, and then his grief-soaked fledgling friendship with the family next-door to his new London flat; a parallel (if less fully realised) plot about Daniel, an American military drone operator; and a painstakingly detailed description of the moments leading up to “the event”.
That Saturday, Michael goes round to his neighbours’ to pick up his screwdriver, and finds the back door open yet no one at home… This section is the thrilling stuff: there’s a building menace, with the accumulation of minor details – that screwdriver, the soil on his hands, a red stairway carpet – lending an uncanny, heightened impression.
Sheers is a writer who’s already happily hopped between poetry, historical fiction, verbatim theatre, and genealogical travelogue. Here, as in previous outings, the genre delineation is less relevant than the quality of the writing. Which is very high.
Thematic resonances and moral questions subtly shimmer across different plotlines, all of which centre on masculine grief. How active do you have to be in a death to be guilty? Can it be good to tell a lie? That “saw” of the title is important – both Michael and Daniel’s jobs involve watching lives at a cool distance; both render themselves invisible in their work; both become haunted by what they’ve seen. The concluding moments of the novel feel a little rushed, but the journey there is carefully controlled.
The book manages to capture the rhythms, and fragility, of love and family; Sheers is quietly moving on the timeless topic of grief. Yet, set as it is around the financial crash of 2008, I Saw a Man also feels smartly relevant: from describing Michael’s hyper-modern job – as a trendy “immersion journalist” writing stylishly about the lives of New York criminals – to a thoughtful, emotionally intimate exploration of drone warfare, Sheers really does pull off the oft-trumpeted blending of the personal and political.