Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2017

I Saw a Man (2015), by Owen Sheers

The author of I Saw a Man is a Welsh poet, an author, a playwright and, Wikipedia tells me, also a TV presenter and a professor of creativity at Swansea University.  Owen Sheers has won too many awards to mention, except for the one that’s relevant to this book: I Saw a Man was shortlisted for the 2015 Prix Femina Etranger for the French translation.  So the cover of this book is misleading: it’s not really a psychological thriller, it’s an exploration of moral dilemmas in the manner of Ian McEwan, and some of the writing is very effective…

Samantha’s parents, she’d told Michael that evening, had divorced when she was eight years old.  From then on much of her holidays from boarding school in Sussex were taken up with travelling between them.  Her mother remarried a New York doctor, leading to Samantha spending a chain of summers and Christmases in Montauk and Vermont.  These were the environments of her teenage experiences.  On a windy beach at the bottom of a cliff with a surfer, the hairs on his stomach dusted with salt.  In woodland huts softened by fir trees and snow.  Drinking her first beer as she ate a lobster roll, watching the last train carriages clatter in from Manhattan towards the end of the Long Island line.

From eight to eighteen, despite her frequent visits to the East Coast, Samantha no more than brushed against Manhattan itself.  The city was her point of arrival and departure, but never anything more.  (p.89)

Samantha, however, is not the focal point of the story.  When the novel opens, her husband Michael Turner is mourning her death in the Afghan conflict, a job she had returned to after her marriage because although she’d thought she wanted to settle down, she missed her work as a war correspondent.  Much of the story is delivered in flashbacks like this, from multiple points of view, while the reader treads water, waiting with growing impatience for the foreshadowed catastrophe to be revealed.  From chapter one onwards, it is clear that Michael’s transgression into the home of the neighbours who have taken him under their wing, has resulted in some dreadful event.  But it’s not revealed until about half way through the story, and it certainly wasn’t what I had expected.

Faced with a moral dilemma, Michael makes some questionable decisions, influenced in part by the way he assigns moral equivalence to events that are not connected in any way.  His decision is inadvertently affirmed by his neighbour’s decision to tell a concealing lie as well.  The question then becomes, who will be protected by the lie, and who will be hurt by it; who will ultimately tell the truth, and to whom.

Book groups often like discussing these sorts of questions, but I found the plot not entirely convincing, and the never-ending flashbacks unravelling the lives of so many characters seemed more like padding to me, to stretch out the moment when the catastrophe was finally revealed.  And you know, it’s not a good thing when the reader can so easily predict what is supposed to be the surprise twist at the end…

Author: Owen Sheers
Title: I Saw a Man
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2015
ISBN: 9780571317738
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: I Saw a Man



  1. This sounds just up my street, love Ian McEwan. Thanks for the review, i am thoroughly intrigued


    • *chuckle* It was terribly difficult to write this without giving anything away!


  2. A friend of mine read this one a little while ago, and while she liked it I don’t think she was blown away. I must ask her about it again to see how it has settled in her memory since then…


    • Yes, that’s how I feel, and also a sense that there’s more to this author than seems the case.


  3. I liked an earlier book by him and saw him talk a few years ago in Sheffield


    • Hi Stu, thanks for dropping by. I’ll have a look around at the library and see what I can find.


  4. He’s a wonderful and talented writer, really great poetry and short stories too. I suspect his agent or perhaps publisher pushed him a little on this one – write a thriller Owen it’s the only way to success (& make money) nowadays. And who can blame him? His time will come I’m sure.


    • I suspect you are right. This crossover between popular fiction and LitFic has a commercial feel, and yes, *chuckle* making money is a good idea for a writer!


  5. I tend to avoid books which include the afghanistan/iraq wars.


    • This one mainly focusses on the use of drones…


      • That could be boring….


        • Well, it’s looking at the moral issue of using weapons remotely, in this case on a targeted suspect terrorist in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the faraway USA, and it also looks at the impact on the person who causes what the novel identifies as a wrongful death.
          If I were dissecting this book in a book group, I’d be discussing why one is a wrongful death and another isn’t. I think we as citizens should be interrogating the morality of shooting suspects without trial and whether that fits into the category of warfare, where any enemy is a target, or not. We see this on our screens all the time, where civilians are killed sometimes alongside someone who’s a suspected terrorist and sometimes in error because the suspect isn’t even there. The media focusses on the civilian deaths, but rarely interrogates the morality of killing a suspected terrorist.
          Centuries ago St Augustine laid down the principles of a just war, and even if (as is the case in Australia) governments join wars without even discussing it in parliament, I have, as a citizen, applied those principles to help me decide whether the war is just and whether I should acquiesce or protest. But things are so messy now, I don’t even know whether the ‘war on terror’ is a war. The Brits always called IRA bombings crime, not warfare. If terrorism is a crime not a war, then that affects the way we ought to deal with the participants because criminals are not POWs nor are they enemy combatants.


          • It’s a whole new world now. There have been rules: the Geneva convention for example that may or may not have been followed but at least it was there.
            I think of:


            for example.

            But now those old rules don’t apply. Not even loosely.

            I think of warfare in the past: line infantry for example with its known formations that became obsolete with new weaponry.

            Of course you are talking about moral/ethical issues. I think warfare has mutated so fast that our moral arguments haven’t caught up. It used to be simple: you were supposed to shoot people in the other uniform, and yes civilian atrocities occurred definitely, but now soft targets are fair game and yes, even encouraged.


            • Yes, I remember hearing (a while ago) about how future wars would be between nations that were weak militarily who would fight ‘dirty wars’ while strong nations i.e. the USA would fight technological wars. The only way to defeat the USA (as the Vietnamese showed) is to have an endless supply of people willing to die for the cause, using dirty war tactics.


  6. I’m reading this at the moment. Have reached the point of the great reveal about the event ‘that changed their lives” (how I hate that phrase). It wasn’t what I was expecting either ….


    • Do you think he handled it successfully?


      • I think so – it was tantalising the way he kept switching from the house to the backstory of him and his wife and then to the desert.


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