Review of I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, I Saw a Man is thematic, thoughtful and literary without being pretentious. A bit of a mystery with a soupcon of murder, the novel opens with an obscure poem by Hughes Mearns:

“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I saw a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away …”

A charming, but seemingly meaningless, ditty, it is a clue to the deeper, more perturbing issues in I Saw a Man—issues of guilt and responsibility, remorse and blame, sadness and forgiveness, accident and intention. In short, the novel with a deceptively simple title and epigraph is anything but simple.

In the opening pages of I Saw a Man aspiring novelist, Michael Turner, finds his true love in an international journalist named Caroline. Settling in a remote corner of Wales to escape their frenetic pre-marital lifestyles, their idyllic married life is tragically cut short when Caroline takes a risky assignment in Afghanistan. The inciting incident of the novel, it leads Michael on a path through anger and grief before finally resolving in a sort of clouded empathy as he returns to his birth city and establishes a new life. But what happens between points A &B is a series of highly unanticipated events, all of which contribute to the novel’s main theme.

Beautifully written with an economy of backstory and description, the novel is a classic peeling-an-onion style narrative, wherein widower Michael Turner reveals the details of his past in bits and pieces that accrue more and more meaning as the novel progresses. The setting of the story, a luxurious heath in south London, plays a prominent role in the novel, too, informing its mood and events.  A second literary technique Sheers uses to great advantage in the novel is mirroring, whereby seemingly disparate and unrelated events parallel one another, drawing readers back time and again to the novel’s central issue of culpability.

If this review seems obscure, it is because I Saw a Man is the sort of novel that invites (and deserves) scrutiny. It is opaque in a good way, rich in depth and dimension. What I admire most, however, is how Sheers subtly highlights the larger issues of the novel without bludgeoning us with them. Beyond the culpability of the main characters, for example, is the larger question of authenticity. Unlike them, we may not have caused another’s misfortune, but surely we, too, have indirectly fostered hurts and pain—small but significant partial deaths—in our lifetimes. It is part of being human. No matter how much we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness, we inevitably face situations in which we are less than honest, irresponsible if not entirely guilty, hurtful by default, if you will.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Michael’s description of himself as an aspiring fiction-writer. Here again we experience the reflexive nature of Sheers’ novel—he is writing a novel about a character who wants to do just that—write a novel. Again, think of peeling-an-onion or a Chinese box. As a failed novelist, Michael finds his niche in writing non-fictional, intimate portrayals of people he meets. Here Sheers blurs the line between fiction and reality—an inherent flaw of biography—because of the categorical impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being. The irony is that even as Michael acknowledges the impossibility of knowing the exact content of his subject’s each and every conversation, his subject may have had, he still believes there is a measure of truth the writer is able to convey by virtue of his proximity to his subject, a proximity he seeks to actualize by removing himself, the observing party, from the final product, the biography. Thus Sheers’ protagonist inserts himself into other people’s lives in order to discover their truths, then promptly “disappears himself” from the finished work in order to more fully realize his subject’s unadulterated reality.

Michael exercises this technique in early in the novel in his summary of “Neighborhoods,” a study of two brothers whose contrasting lives continue to diverge from one another even after the book is finished. A second book he’s written is about a scientist who seeks to identify the exact nature of empathy by theorizing there are certain cells in the brain that actually “mirror” other people’s experiences, thus allowing them to understand and empathize with each other. Sheers’ novel exhibits this same type of mirroring or repetition as Michael seeks his own truth and struggles to become as authentic a human being as possible.

If this discussion has taken a metaphysical turn, it’s because I Saw a Man is ‘meta’ in nature. Like many great works, its form equals content, the meaning of the novel and its telling feeding one another in an endless loop. I’ve purposely avoided specificity to allow the reader to discover the novel’s meaning for himself.

Overall, I Saw a Man is a modern masterpiece, much like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See. Like Donna Tart and Anthony Doerr, Own Sheers is one of those writers whose work resonates far beyond the confines of its covers. I honestly can’t imagine—and can’t wait to see—what Sheers writes next.

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Poem for Thanksgiving

Mr. Owl’s Apology
 
High above
the woodland din,
perched on a
listing redwood
limb,
I spy
the hollow
far below
where humble
creeks
and rivers
flow,
where songbirds
flit and
beauty lies,
where greening
trees and
bluing skies
hide forest
creatures
shivering,
their flittering
and fluttering
their wintering
and summering,
set my heart
a spin-owing.

Poetry Challenge: Rictameter

Greetings, All–

Sometimes I write poems in response to prompts posted on the Miss Rumphius Effect blog.  This one calls for a 9-line poem with the following syllable counts:  2-4-6-8-10-8-6-4-2, and requires the first and last lines to match.

You

You are…
the crest upon
a robin’s chest, the blue
in a bluebird’s feathery nest.
You’re the song I sing when I go to sleep,
the words I pray my soul to keep
when I need to be strong—
and if I’m not…
you are.

A Poem for Fall . . . and two free books

Dear Readers,

Happy Fall!  To celebrate, I’m giving away digital versions of two of my children’s books this weekend (Oct. 24 & 25) . . .

Yogabets: An Acrobatic Alphabet

Cover 1200 dpi YOGA single pp for CS - 9 22 15_Page_01
https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=yogabets
&

One Charming Cat (Un Chat Charmant).

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B016B0F6PG?keywords=one%20charming%20cat&qid=1445615776&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

I’d love to know what you think of them!

For Richer or Poorer

A spare red ring
can mean
many things—
from a bedbug bite
to a life-saving buoy,
from the hatband
mark on an old
man’s head
to the salty rose
of a child’s
mouth,
from the
first full chomp
of a ripe red
fruit
to the mulberry
groove on
a widow’s hand—
yes, a deep
red ring can
mean many
things.

Review of The Girl on the Train

Review of The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train has much to recommend it, not least of which is its best- seller status. But I wonder about the recent flurry of “Girl” books, starting with Gillian Flynn’s truly admirable Gone Girl.

I loved GG. It was slick, interesting, surprising. Good plot (excellent plot, actually. I remember thinking you’d have to be a mastermind to plot something as complicated as this.), well-drawn characters, plausible motivations (the minor exception being Nick Dunne’s final dubitable decision).

But then along came Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on a Train, followed shortly by Renne Knight’s Disclaimer, another in kind (though one lacking the eponymous “Girl” title).

Let’s take GT. Similar in style to Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is told from multiple points of view—four, in fact: three women and one man, all of whom, sounded alike. This was my first problem with the book, which, in the end, had a decent plot. But when all of a novel’s characters sound the same, it’s difficult to distinguish one from another, a cardinal rule in novel-writing being that each character have its own “voice.” So I had trouble navigating GT because I could never be quite sure who was speaking (unless I went back to the chapter heads to double-check), which greatly disrupted the flow of the narrative.

A second confusing issue was the time frame. Like GG and so many other contemporary novels (reaching back as far as Michael Cunningham’s The Hours—which was excellent and warranted the shifts in time—as well as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants, for example) GT moves forward and back in time, a technique which has become less ‘novel’ than de rigueur. So de rigueur, in fact, it’s become tiresome, mainly because it’s difficult to follow.

A lifelong reader, I propose a return to the days of straightforward narrative—unless different time periods are truly warranted by the story. Let the story stand on its own merit. Let the characters absorb us. Let their voices seduce us. Let go of the gimmickry of multiple points of view and shifts in time—or at least use them judiciously. Currently they’re so over-used as to become parodies of themselves, serving no other purpose than to confuse the reader—which, sadly, seems to be the sole point of many of the Gone Girl clones.

Rainy Day Blues

Two weeks of rain have come and gone–hurrah!

My head is wet,
my nose is cold,
my feet are
lumps of clay.
A chill wind’s blown
the starlight out
and chased
the moon away.
Fog steeps me
like a bag
of tea
in drizzle, dew
and mist—
so I lift
me up and
squeeze me out
and plunk myself back
in the house.

Loose-y Toothy

Dear Readers,

Two recent trips to the dentist have reminded me of a common childhood experience–losing teeth.

So, in tribute to my dentist, and to children—everywhere—who’ve ever lost a tooth (or will lose one soon), I give you . . .

Loose-y Toothy

My tooth is loose,
my gum is sore.
I just can’t take it
anymore.

A wiggle left,
a jiggle right,
I’ll get it out
in one more bite—

But . . . suddenly . . .
I’M  FULL OF DREAD:
my wiggle-finger’s
turning red!

I think it’s blood,
but I’m not sure—
until I see it
on the floor.

My gore has turned
the carpet brown.
I grab a towel
and swab it round.

But what a mess
is on that rug—
morsels, crumbs,
a million bugs!

That’s when I find—
to my surprise—
MY BABY TOOTH
among the fries.