I’ve been curious about I Saw A Man ever since I heard Annabel Crabb rave about it on the Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast ages ago. It took me a couple of years to come across a copy, then a few more to finally get around to reading it – but I’m so glad I persisted.

I Saw A Man - Owen Sheers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I Saw A Man starts out as a love story between Michael and Caroline, two adventurous journalists who have reached the point where they start to think about “settling down”. They are tragically torn apart when Caroline is killed in a drone strike while filming a documentary in Pakistan. Michael, bereft, moves to a small London apartment to try and re-start his life. Not ready to fully face the world, he finds himself growing close to his neighbours, the Nelsons: Josh, Samantha, and their two young daughters.

The Nelsons appear to have a perfect marriage, but Michael grows close enough to them to see the cracks. Josh is a work-hard-play-hard banker at Lehmann Brothers (bear in mind, this story is set in 2008), and Samantha is stifled and resentful of her domestic servitude. Both love their daughters deeply, and appreciate Michael as a buffer in their strained relationship.

Then, the unthinkable occurs, and everything changes.

Normally, I’m happy to blow past any concerns about spoilers to tell you the full story – but the twist in I Saw A Man is so powerful, so brutal, and so laboriously built up, that I’ve decided to hold back this time. Unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe, if you’re hate-reading this) it makes this review a short one, as there’s not a lot more I can say without revealing too much.

Sheers is prone to extended detours in his telling of this story, with accompanying shifts in timeline and geography. I Saw A Man stretches over years and continents, expanding and contracting until the nature of the catastrophic event is revealed about half-way through. The remainder is a bit more straightforward, running parallel to the fall-out and pursuit of redemption.

I Saw A Man isn’t a thriller, but it’s every bit as tense and gripping. It penetrates far more deeply than your standard paint-by-numbers airport novel, though. Sheers interrogates the psychology of trauma, the capriciousness of chance, the weight of grief, and the morality of complicit silence. Plus, it there’s a clever turn towards the meta at the end. If you’re looking for a pacy whodunnit to read on the beach, this ain’t it.

I think I Saw A Man would be a good pick for fans of Ian McEwan’s Atonement era, but I must say I enjoyed it much, much more than anything of his that I’ve read so far. Sheers takes McEwan’s preoccupation with moral dilemmas and shaves off all the flowery language, leaving us with a far more frank and brutal narrative. Of course, that’s not for everyone, but it certainly is for me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Saw A Man:

  • “This book is a long succession of uninteresting events that happen to extremely uninteresting characters narrated in painstaking detail.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Turgid tosh.The rave reviews are exceptionally misleading.” – john anthony
  • “the prose is great. Pass the Prozac.” – Rick Mitchell