Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good cover. Be it when choosing a book or, particularly when I was a lot younger, picking up vinyl in a record shop, I was always attracted by an interesting image or simply something colourful that caught my eye. And while this hasn’t always worked out – boy, I’ve bought some absolute turkeys in my time just because they were a bit shiny – it’s often been a decent indication of a potentially brilliant buy. But it wasn’t just the colour or the image that grabbed my attention with ‘Come Again’; the author was of obvious interest too.

If you’re unfamiliar with the name, Robert Webb is best known as a comic actor who was one half of Mitchell and Webb, the pairing responsible for hit shows like ‘Peep Show’ and ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’. When I picked up ‘Come Again’, I was also fully aware of Webb’s memoir ‘How Not to be A Boy’ and so I was almost duty bound to buy it in the end!

‘Come Again’ tells the tale of Kate Marsden, who’s job in her own words is ‘to re-write history’; she cleans up the internet profiles of prominent people and high profile business types. And now she’s discovered something about a major client that is so morally abhorrent, she simply can’t cover it up. What to do with the information creates a major dilemma. But this isn’t Kate’s biggest problem, by a long, long way.

A year ago, Kate’s husband, Luke died. They’d been together since Fresher’s Week at university; 28 years in all. Unsurprisingly then, and despite the best efforts of friends and family, Kate has not been coping. Time isn’t healing and she’s resorted to drink, which has led her to the point she’s now faced with. Suicide. But not before one last enormous act of vengeance.

‘Come Again’ is a fantastic read. As a story, it’s multi-layered. We have the question of whether Kate will live, alongside whether she’ll do the right, but highly dangerous thing and expose the moral shortcomings a shady billionaire and her boss, Charles. There’s the sub text of the relationship with her mother as well as that with her old university friends, all of whom have spent the year since Luke’s death reaching out to her in an attempt to get her to start living her life again. And then, when you thought there wasn’t room for another layer, there’s the twist in the tale. Now that will really put the cat among the pigeons…or in this case, the middle aged woman among the Freshers.

I’d hugely recommend ‘Come Again’. It’s brilliantly written with a fantastic storyline and believable, but complex characters. Certainly, if you went to university, this book will transport you right back there. But besides that, alongside the subject of grief being tackled with a wonderfully light touch, there’s a wicked sense of humour here too, as you’d expect I suppose from a comic mind like Webb’s. Kate herself is a character whos full of surprises and towards the latter stages of the novel she even becomes a bit of an action hero, so there really is something for everyone in ‘Come Again’. There’s even a happy ending, although even that has quiet a bit of a twist to it and will not be what you were expecting at the halfway point of the novel.

If you like a laugh, a bit of nostalgia, action or romance, ‘Come Again’ is well worth picking up. And it’s got a lovely shiny cover too! What’s not to like?

I’d give ‘Come Again’ by Robert Webb

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book Review: ‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

Every now and again, a newspaper or a magazine that I read will publish a list of some kind of essential reads. It might be an end of year poll or just something that links to a particular time of year, but for as long as I can remember I’ve cut these lists up and stashed the cuttings elsewhere as books that I will mean to get around to buying and reading. ‘Marriage Material’ was published in 2013 and was found on such a list and then, years later, recovered from whatever receptacle it had been stashed in. I finally got round to buying it last year! And I have to say, it’s the kind of book that makes me thankful for my hoarding!

‘Marriage Material’ is a novel that is predominantly about families. From the love and the tenderness through to the irritations, the regrets and the great big falling outs. But it’s about much more than that too. Set largely in the West Midlands from the 1970s and 80s right through to the present day, the novel has culture, prejudice and division at its heart and for those of us who grew up in these times – if not the precise location – it makes for a really interesting read as well as one that brings back times that were a lot darker in their attitudes to anything or anyone that was deemed ‘different’.

The book tells the tale of Arjan Banga and his family with the story being told via a dual narrative taking place some years apart, before the two sides come together in an interesting twist. I loved the narrative style here as it left me not only trying to follow the story but also trying to work out the connection between the two. I think I was a little slow on the uptake, if I’m being honest, as it wasn’t actually that hard to work out, but for the first third of the book I must confess that I didn’t make the connection!

The family are immigrants to UK, so as the story is set in the 1970s and 80s, the book covers the ugly racism prevalent in our country at this time. However, I’d say that Sanghera treats these issues with a light touch and is prepared to write with humour when tackling some of the notable instances of prejudice in the book, such as the geographical inaccuracy of most of the insults hurled his and his familys’ way. It certainly puts the ignorance of his abusers into perspective and Sanghera’s observations made me smile on more than one occasion.

As the two narratives collide the story picks up pace. When his father dies Arjan heads home and immediately feels family pressure to take over the business. But he desperately doesn’t want to slip into the kind of stereotyped life he’s worked so hard all his adult life to avoid. However, seeing his mother again leads to him worrying about her health as well as her ability to run things and he’s is forced into a couple of decisions that will have a huge impact upon his future. One of these decisions is to track down a long lost relative and her impact on all of their lives has mixed, but ultimately positive results.

Rather than returning to his far more cosmopolitan life in London, he opts to stay at home to help run the business, as well as looking after his elderly mother. However, with a fiancé patiently awaiting him back in London and old acquaintances vying for his time in the Midlands, his life just gets more and more complicated. Inevitably, Arjan messes things up!

Marriage Material is a great read. Arjan’s life veers from one catastrophe to the next and as a reader you can’t help feeling sympathy, even when it seems abundantly clear that he must know he’s making a terrible decision. There’s a real humour – often quite dark – to the book and though at times it seems seems like Arjan’s life is spiraling out of control, you can somehow still laugh at his predicament.

In the end it all works out for the family. But not without the kind of scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Tarantino film near the end. But just when you think it might all end in the kind of tragedy that none of us saw coming, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. A happy ending of sorts and certainly not in the way that you might have predicted when you first picked up the book!

A funny, engaging and just all-round excellent read, I’ll give Marriage Material

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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