I’m eternally grateful to Mr Ingram, my English A-Level teacher at Sir Roger Manwood’s school in the early 1970s. For it was he who gave me the lifelong gift of a love of books and literature.
And – minutes after absorbing the final word of I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers – what greater gift can there be?
Owen is a poet, novelist and playwright. And I Saw A Man is undoubtedly the work of an exceptional talent.
Writer Michael Turner returns to London after losing his war-reporter wife Caroline in a US drone attack near the Pakistan border with Afghanistan.
An unlikely friendship with the Nelson family, his new Hampstead neighbours, unexpectedly helps the grieving process. Until the tragedy which Michael unwittingly triggers one sun-baked summer afternoon, entering the Nelson’s unlocked house in search of a lent screwdriver.
This core event of the book doesn’t take place until well over 100 pages of the languorous, but simultaneously taut, story have pulled us towards it, like a patient butterfly collector stalking his fluttering prey.
The characters come to vivid life through backward and forward projection of time and place, the author teasing us into his trap with deliciously poetic prose.
He continued to field their questions, answering Tony, Josh, Janera as fully as he could. He hadn’t talked this much for months. As he did, his imaginings of what Caroline would have said too, had she been there, shadowed his words. And then what she’d have said later too, as they walked home together, or got into bed; what she’d have said about the people they’d met. How she’d have described them, judged them, done impressions of them; Maddy’s imperial stance, Josh’s eager hosting.
Whenever Michael thought of Caroline like this, projecting their past into an impossible present, although he had trouble seeing her he could always hear her voice clearly. Even now, beneath the crowded talk in the Nelsons’ front room, he could hear her, like a subterranean stream running under a city. Her laugh. Her migrating swallow of an accent, her low whisper in his ear, telling him it was time to go.
I Saw A Man is about love and loss, guilt and redemption, friendship and a blurring of morality and purpose. And much, much more, with every sentence as perfectly constructed as the Nelsons’ opulent north London town house.
The writer gives an interesting insight on his website to the process with which he wrote this outstanding book. It had a gestation period of seven years, during which the plot and characters marinaded gently in his imagination – searching for the book’s voice – before a frenzied three months of writing the first draft, living with the characters in a very intense way.
The process undoubtedly worked. As one reviewer astutely observed: this book is a prize in itself.
Thank you, Owen Sheers.
And thank you, Mr Ingram.