Justin Cartwright

Lost in the telling

Repetitive and highfalutin, I Saw a Man, involving a distant drone strike and close-ups of a failing marriage, feels rushed and undeveloped

This is a thriller, a novel of betrayal and separation, and a reverie on death and grieving. The only key fact I can provide without giving away the plot is that Caroline, the film-making wife of Michael, the novel’s main protagonist, is killed in the badlands of Pakistan by a drone controlled from a facility near Las Vegas. Caroline is filming Taleban leaders when they and Caroline are killed. Michael, who is ‘an immersive journalist’, has spent some years on a project with gangs in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is dangerous but rewarding work, and after a few years his findings are published to some acclaim under the title of BrotherHoods.

Now back in London, he falls in with Josh and Samantha, neighbours in the adjoining house and flat on Hampstead Heath. Their marriage is in a precarious state, and Michael’s proximity seems to help. But their relationship spirals swiftly into hatred when there is a catastrophe in their family.

This probably sounds enticing, but there is a problem. Owen Sheers doesn’t appear to subscribe to the first commandment of
novel-writing — to show, not tell. His style is mostly telling; not only that, but he often repeats — slightly revised, but never with greater clarity — the previous sentence, which verges on the pointless. In fact it becomes irritating. Many of his observations are dull, or offered by rote, and he goes in for highfalutin prose, such as:

In cafés, crowded pubs, sometimes even in the street, they came to her, recognising her brevity as if she were a comet they knew would trace their nights only once in a lifetime.

And:

As Michael neared the bath, he closed in on that memory again, until, without any disturbance of translation, he was no longer alone and Caroline was there too, naked in the bath, looking up at him, and he was looking down at her brown and gold eyes and her fine-featured face.

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