‘They were paid to watch’

51m2bP-PgaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Owen Sheers is one of the handful of authors whose writing I always find both admirable and emotionally engaging, whether he’s immersing his readers in an imagined German occupation of Britain in 1944 or a semi-fictional biography of his great-great uncle’s travels as a missionary in Zimbabwe. I was surprised, then, at how much I struggled with his novella, White Ravens, when I read it a couple of years ago. This retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion, seemed both to showcase Sheers at his best and slip into surprisingly amateurish prose; for example, flat dialogue and obvious ‘telling’ which seemed totally inexplicable, given Sheers’s evident skill as a writer. Nevertheless, I was eager to read his newest book, and confident that these weird slip-ups in White Ravens were an aberration; perhaps an indication that he had finished this novella too quickly, or that he had struggled to match the incredible force of the opening of his retelling. What I found was that this sort of prose was not completely absent from I I Saw A Man. But, having finished this compelling novel, I felt that I understood a little better why such a sure-footed writer occasionally strays into this style.

Major Daniel McCullen is an American drone pilot. Though he once flew combat missions in the old-fashioned, hands-on way, his commute to work down Highway 95 has become the only chance he has to separate his home life from the deadly missiles that he launches remotely from Creech Air Force Base. ‘They were paid to watch. This was their job… In Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, by the time his bombs detonated, his missiles hit, he was already miles away, flying faster than the speed of sound… At Creech he still didn’t hear his munitions detonate, but despite being even further from the battlefield, he saw everything.’ Tracking down one target, a man called Ahmed al Saeed, Daniel watches him join in with the football games of local children in Baghdad, deliberately diving the wrong way to let a child score a goal, before Daniel obliterates him with the touch of a button. Daniel’s distance from reality, however, is not the main concern of this novel. Its central focus is another man approaching middle age, Michael, who has achieved success as a writer through carefully watching other people’s lives until he can imaginatively inhabit them, melding them into memoirs while cutting off contact with the actual subjects. Mourning the death of his wife, Michael finds solace through his friendship with the family next door in London, Samantha, Josh and their two small daughters.

If you’re wedded to the idea that a writer needs to show not tell (I’m not), you won’t get along with I Saw A Man. Telling is what this novel is designed to do, a narrative choice which holds the reader slightly apart from its characters, much as Daniel is distanced from his targets or Josh from his subjects. Yet, by making the choice to tell us so much about his characters’ lives, Sheers taps into the power of storytelling, a narrative drive that is sometimes difficult to achieve through the detailed showing of characters’ interactions. And in the sections of the novel that are paced in real time – as Michael walks slowly through his neighbours’ house, feeling that something is wrong – the stories that bookend this exploration lend it a depth and tension that it would otherwise have lost. The result is a literary novel that reads like a thriller, a target that many authors have aimed for and so few have hit.

And the clunky writing? While the examples of this are too few to mar the novel in any way, I was interested in why this happened, and if it might explain my earlier problems with White Ravens. The prose feels awkward, most often, when Sheers starts to introduce dialogue, or real-time action, into the main sections of the novel; in other words, when he tries to ‘show’ at a point when it feels more natural for him to still be ‘telling’. When Michael talks with his wife Caroline about a dangerous journalistic assignment she is taking on, the scene feels almost hasty, as if Sheers wants to quickly establish a mood and move on to tell us more, rather than delve into the psyches of these two individuals:

He lifted his feet off her lap and leant forward, taking her face in his hands. “Just,” he said, kissing her lightly, “be careful.”

Her lips were warm and as she kissed him back, pulling him to her, her mouth tasted of the onion she’d been eating as she cooked. “Thank you,” she whispered, putting her arms about his neck. “I owe you one Mikey boy.”

This problem largely disappears in the second half of the novel, confirming my suspicion that, as with White Ravens, the occasional clunk comes from an author who seems almost too involved with the pace of his own narrative, writing these placeholder scenes so he can move on to what happens next. Unlike White Ravens, however, the payoff is evident in I Saw A Man, which I found genuinely difficult to put down. Like Daniel, we don’t want to watch the tragedy that plays out, but are compelled to anyway.

I received a free copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. It’s out now in the UK.

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