It’s a gutsy move to put the first sentence of your novel on the front cover. Even more so when the text is given more prominence than the name of the book itself. But it is a great ‘what’s in the box?’ first sentence: The event that changed all their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June just minutes after Michael Turner – thinking the Nelson’s house was empty – stepped through their back door. A bit long winded for a book title. The actual title, I Saw a Man, carries its own weight - conjuring the old nonsense rhyme about seeing a man who wasn’t there – a connection that carries its own resonance as the plot unfolds.
Michael Turner, the main character of the novel, has already been through a life changing event when the story opens. Turner, a journalist turned novelist, is still recovering from the death of his journalist wife in a drone strike in Afghanistan. The key issue, as far as Sheers is concerned, is the way in which Michael deals with the loss of his wife and with the whole grieving process. Sheers in interested in the way in which grief changes the way people see and interact with the world.
I Saw a Man retains the bones of a thriller, the build up to the “event” mentioned in the first sentence takes place over half of the narrative, and various suspense elements follow. There is an investigation of the “event” and an exploration of the caustic impacts of crime. But the plot is really here as a skeleton on which to build something much more substantial. An exploration of grief, loss and the need to seek redemption for real and perceived wrongs. Every character has their own journey, their own unique perspective and their own ways of dealing with these issues as they unfold.
The female characters are well drawn, Michael’s wife in flashback and Samantha Nelson, one of Michael’s neighbours. But the real focus is of Owen’s exploration is very much on the men, how they deal with these issues and each other. Michael’s relationship with his neighbour Josh Nelson is central to the plot. But also critical is the odd correspondence that develops between Michael and the pilot of the drone that killed his wife.
I Saw A Man is both gripping as a slow burn thriller and thought provoking. And while the finale might at first reading come across as a little anti-climactic after a creeping build-up, it rings true in terms of Sheer’s characters. And in the way of many books about writers, it all becomes a bit meta and twisty, which is fine too. The world of I Saw a Man is unfair, and there is plenty of sadness and loss in this novel. But in the end there are also some glimmers of hope and optimism in its exploration of the way people are able build and rebuild their lives.