Cause and effect

This is my review of I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers.

Having recently moved to a road overlooking Hampstead Heath, Michael calls on his neighbour Josh to reclaim a tool he has lent him. Surprised to find that the house is empty but the back door left ajar, he enters it on an impulse. This small, chance act triggers an unpredictable but initially devastating chain of events with life-changing consequences.

The cleverly titled, "I saw a man", although it takes a while to understand the significance of this, is a slow-paced psychological thriller by a serious-minded writer interested in exploring the role of cause and effect in our lives, the strength of the will to survive, and how we handle guilt. From the outset, there is a sense of tension and of the need to take note of every mundane detail because it might prove important. Suspense is heightened by the device of switching in alternate chapters between Michael, an intruder in his friends' house, and flashbacks to explain his past life: a few minutes spent in the house therefore expand to an eternity.

What could be a taut structure is slackened by the author's desire to weave in his views on a variety of issues such as the recent banking crisis, the Iraq War and creative writing, including the idea that it is a manipulative process: observing others, "blending in" to gain confidences and exploiting friendships in order use people as models for the putty to be moulded into novels.

In the first chapter I was struck by the occasional poetic phrase – the "nun's head" of a mother coot – in the otherwise plain prose, which led me to discover that the author is also a poet. The narrative is very strong on descriptive detail, as if the work of a scriptwriter, causing me to wonder if Owen Sheers had a film in mind from the outset. There are some powerful passages, but the style often jarred on me. The frequent use of reported events makes for too much "condensed telling". Some metaphors seem inapt, words misused, although this may be intentional, all these factors combining to seem surprising from a Professor of Creative Writing.

I think this book will be popular, and could be adapted as an entertaining TV series or film. It is a page-turner, but marred for me by avoidable lapses into clunky prose and some plot digressions which either detract from the narrative drive, because they lead nowhere, or which seem like missed opportunities for further plot twists, such as the aftermath of Michael's liaison with the young New York hoodlums, Nico and Raoul.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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