I SAW A MAN
By Owen Sheers Faber & Faber/ Hardcover & Paperback/310 pages/Hardcover $39.57, Paperback $29.91/Major bookstores/4/5
A man goes next door to retrieve a screwdriver he lent his neighbour and inadvertently sets in motion a chain of tragic events.
Michael Turner, an acclaimed writer, moves from Wales to London after the tragic death of his wife Caroline.
Overwhelmed by grief and longing, he allows himself to be drawn into the lives of his neighbours Josh and Samantha Nelson and their two daughters. Their family life is a picture of perfection on the surface; they live in a large house in a pretty Hampstead neighbourhood, Josh's ambition and success in his banking career matched by the beauty and intelligence of Samantha, an art student before marriage and motherhood.
Michael is reminded of his recently dashed hopes of starting a family with Caroline. His grief is deepened when an investigation uncovers the botched military operation that led to the drone attack in Pakistan that killed Caroline. The shadow cast by this knowledge plays a role in the disastrous event in the Nelsons' house on a quiet summer afternoon.
The novel moves backwards and forwards in time to evoke the psychological innerscapes of characters struggling to come to terms with loss.
Sheers provides a convincing portrait of Samantha's transformation through her return to art, but the true stars in this novel are the male characters: apart from Michael and Josh, there is also the compelling and heartwrenching narrative of Daniel McCullen, the US army major in Nevada whose sense of guilt and complicity in Caroline's death drives him to write letters to Michael.
This is an expertly crafted thriller that plumbs the depths of grief, sorrow, desire, remorse. The suspense that builds up over the course of the novel is given ballast by deeper questions about responsibility.
This is an expertly crafted thriller that plumbs the depths of grief, sorrow, desire, remorse. The suspense that builds up over the course of the novel is given ballast by deeper questions about responsibility and selfhood. What can unmake a person? How can a broken life be rebuilt? What does it take for a person to carry on with the ordinary business of life in the aftermath of inconsolable tragedy?
In prose that is as penetrating and precise as the hard truths that are confronted by all the main characters, Sheers evokes the fragility of love and friendship. The characters struggle as they are left with little choice but to confront the uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable knowledge of who they are and what wrongs they have committed.
Redemption resides in acts of labour and artistic creation: Josh's gardens and conservation work, Samantha's photographs, Daniel's ranch work and Michael's writing.
Admittedly, there are one or two instances where the plot feels stretched. However, Sheers' prose is a pleasure to read and his characters so sympathetically drawn, the dramatic tension of his fiction so taut, that you will keep reading until the last page.
If you like this, read: Her by Harriet Lane (2015, Little, Brown and Company, $30.68, Books Kinokuniya). A chilling and suspenseful drama about friendship and parental guilt.
Yeo Wei Wei