Posted by BookerTalk
There is one phrase guaranteed to make me decide not to buy a novel. Publishers love it and must believe it works as way to hook in readers because it appears time and time again in back cover blurbs. I know it must be hard to come up with a different form of words for every book when there are so many being published but I am tired of seeing “Their lives were changed forever…” (or a variation along those lines). So what was I doing reading a novel which begins:
The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty – stepped through their back door.
The short answer was that I ordered I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers from the library without paying much attention to the front cover where this sentence appears or looking inside the book so I didn’t realise this was how it would begin. The longer answer is that Owen Sheers is a poet, playwright and author from Wales and I like to do my bit to support literature from my native land. He’s won multiple awards including Welsh Book of the Year 2005 for The Dust Diaries, his first prose work (it’s a non-fictional narrative set in Zimbabwe). I feel guilty that I’ve read only one of his novels to date.
At first I was engrossed by I Saw A Man which sees Michael Turner, a best-selling author move from rural Wales to a very dull apartment in London. Michael is “reticent with grief” for his wife, Caroline, a television journalist killed in a drone strike while making a documentary about Pakistani jihadists. Michael slowly begins to heal under the influence of his next door neighbours: Josh Nelson, a Lehman Brothers banker, his wife Caroline and their two young daughters. Soon he is sharing family meals and helping the children with their homework, But one day, Michael finds the door to the Nelson house unlocked and the house deserted. Puzzled and fearful about what he might find he ventures inside.
Sheers skillfully notches up the tension of Michael’s inch by inch progress through the house, using flashbacks into Michael’s life to delay the moment of revelation about the catastrophic events. We’re also taken thousands of miles away to the Nevada desert where, deep in a covert military base, a United States Army major launches a drone that kills Caroline. It’s not until the book is over the half way mark that we get to discover what has happened to the Nelson family. The rest of the book deals essentially with the fall out from that revelation and the web of secrecy and guilt in which Michael becomes complicit.
There was much to enjoy and admire in I Saw A Man. The suspense of the first half meant I was continually scrolling through all the possibilities about the nature of the catastrophe that was foreshadowed on page one. Afar reading the section about American attacks against terrorists, I began speculating the Nelsons were undercover agents or even members of a terrorist network. Later on, there were hints of a more ethereal explanation for the Nelsons’ disappearance, at several points for example Michael thinks he sees the ghost of his wife.
He did not believe in ghosts. In all the months since her death never once had he thought Caroline was still with him. Her absence had been the most certain thing he’d ever known. But she had been. Just now. He’d felt her with absolute experience. And he still could. It was fading, the resonance cooling but it was there, as if he was slowly waking backwards from a fire, retreating into a cold night.
Sheers is clearly a talented writer. His prose moves easily and authoritatively from the minutiae of daily domestic life in an upmarket London suburb on the edge of Hampstead Heath to the tension of an international anti-terrorist attack. Imagery abounds here: American SUVs are driven by small women whose “painted nails clutch the steering wheels like the feet of caged birds”. Daniel, the pilot whose missile killed Caroline watches a thermal imaging screen hover over a body killed by his drone, noting “the puddle of human heat grow, like the slow bubble of a lava lamp … From orange to yellow, to green, until leaking from his limbs to his core, his body cooled to blue, eventually melting into the colour of the ground, the dust.”
The novel’s real strengths, however, lies in its study of guilt and the lies we tell ourselves about where our responsibility begins and ends.. Daniel, the pilot, is deeply traumatised by the effect of his missions. Though he consols himself that they have helped save thousands of American lives, he constantly replays the moments when his target hones in on innocent victims who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He resolves to track down Caroline’s husband and tell him what happened.
Not because he should, but because he had to. Because he knew it was the only way he would ever be able to go on. He was tired of being unseen. Of being dislocated from his action. … He wanted to own his life and he knew that meant owning all of it.
Daniel’s desire for openness contrasts with the responses of the two other principal males in the novel, Michael and Josh. Michael’s survival depends on his ability to dissemble – ironic given that he made his name as a writer of a book about the hidden world of two drug dealers in New York. Josh too has a secret which makes him partly responsible for what happened on that summer day. It’s a secret he would prefer neither police nor wife ever discover.
This was very much a novel very much of two halves. Once we learned the nature of the catastrophe the tension petered out substantially and the remainder of the novel was largely concerned with whether the lies created in the aftermath of that afternoon in June would be unravelled and if so, by whom. Sheers once again keeps us guessing while charting Michael’s inner turmoil but the final resolution still felt rather rushed. The book asks some searching questions about modern day warfare – there is one passage where Daniel reflects on how the rise of unmanned aerial pilots meant the next generation would go into missions without any experiene of real on-the-ground combat, guiding missiles remotely with joysticks modelled on those used in Sony Playstations.
Without knowing it under the eyes of their parents and siblings, America would train her future pilots in bedrooms and living rooms across the country. They would fight a sif the world was a free-fire zone, cocooned within the hum of servers and computers…
A future where people can launch and guide missions to kill as if they were playing a virtual reality game. Now I find that a chilling prospect.
About the Book: I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers was published in 2015 by Faber and Faber. It is his fourth novel. My copy was borrowed from my local library.
About the Author: Owen Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 though brought up and educated in South Wales. His first collection of poetry, The Blue Book, was published by Seren in 2000 and shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year and the Forward Prize for ‘Best First Collection’. His debut prose work, The Dust Diaries, was published by Faber in 2004. In 2012 Owen became the first poet to work with a rugby team when he became Artist in Residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. He is currently Professor in Creativity at Swansea University.
Why I read this Book: This is part of my endeavour to read more fiction by authors from my native country of Wales. Reviews and other posts about writers and literature from Wales can be found on the Literature from Wales page.
Posted by BookerTalk
Continuing the idea from a recent post, here are some short reviews of novels I read a few years ago but failed to finish the reviews. Luckily I had started them and had kept a few notes to help but don’t expect any deep insight on each of these…..
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier: I had high expectations for this one having seen multiple reviews about how good it was. I picked it up as a companion to a long international flight, thinking it would distract me but I found it decidedly dull. It’s set largely at a large estate in Cornwall owned and run by Ambrose Ashley together with his young cousin Philip . All goes swimmingly until Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he has to leave England for warmer climates, choosing to sojourn instead in Italy. There he meets cousin Rachel, marries her and sends letters back home about how happy he is. Gradually the tone changes and he begins complaining of repeated headaches. A few weeks later Rachel, now a widow, turns up at the estate. Philip is attracted to her despite his doubts that she might have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. The rest of the novel is an unraveling of the mystery about Rachel and Ambrose’s demise and whether Philip wakes up to the reality of the situation in time to avoid a personal catastrophy. I thought the mystery ponderous and the writing lacking in energy. Just about managed to finish it.
Sarah’s Key by Isabelle de Rothsay
This was recommended to me by a colleague in North America who is even more of an avid reader than I am. We discovered this connection via a team building exercise where you have to come up with three things that you think no-one else knows about you, then the other people have to guess who that fact relates to. It was a good recommendation for a book I doubt I would have picked up otherwise.
It has a dual time frame.In one we meet ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, a Jewish girl born in Paris, who is arrested with her parents during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup. Before they go, she locks her four-year-old brother in a cupboard, thinking the family should be back in a few hours. The second plot follows Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, who is asked to write an article in honour of the 60th anniversary of the roundup. Gradually the two stories coalesce.
This is a narrative that is full of emotional appeal, particularly those set in France. The scenes that take place in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where more than 7,000 Jews were enclosed without water or food for days before being moved to concentration camps, were deeply moving, the kind of episode which it is hard to read without feeling bitter and tearful. The modern day story of Julia and her cheating husband had less impact and the ending was far too neatly wrapped up in a big chocolate box bow to work for me. But on the whole I’m glad I read it – the film version wasn’t bad either.
Resistance by Owen Sheers
Owen’s debut novel, Resistance is set in 1944 and imagines what would have happened if the Normandy landings had failed and German troops manage to arrive on British soil. Within a month half of the country is occupied.
In an isolated farm in the Welsh borders Sarah Lewis, finds her farmer husband Tom as disappeared. All the other husbands in the valley have similarly gone. The women are left alone to cope as best they can with the crops and livestock. Later in the novel it transpires they have all become members of the secret British resistance. In the meantime a German patrol arrives on a mystery mission, forming a fragile support for the women when a severe winter hits the valley. Sarah begins a taut relationship with the patrol’s commanding officer. But this puts further pressure on the fragile harmony of the valley and reveals deep undercurrents of feeling.
On the plus side I enjoyed reading about an area of my birth country with which I am familiar but seeing it through fresh eyes. It’s one that is not stack exactly but spare and often overlooked in favour of more lush scenery nearby. Sheers writes in a lyrical mode that really brings alive the landscape and the battle that endures to make a living from this land. Ultimately though this proved nothing more than just an ok novel though – neither good nor bad but not one that would make me recommend it. I think I struggled to engage with the characters and feel them ‘real’. My mum on the other hand loved it and so did her book club so maybe I am in a minority. Its now been turned into a film for which Owen Sheers was the co-screenwriter.
Sheers lives in Wales so I’m keen to support him and will likely read his most recent novel I Saw A Man which is set in London and New York and though also about relationships, has the pace of a thriller.