Distance is the best form of defence, advises a fencing instructor in I Saw a Man. But Owen Sheers’s second novel suggests that, away from the piste, such an approach to life can come at a high ethical and psychological cost. Its protagonist, Michael Turner, is a young British writer who has made a name for himself through a book exploring the lives of two brothers on the fringes of New York gangs. His technique is to immerse himself so thoroughly in his subjects’ lives that they forget his presence, then to eradicate all traces of himself from the resulting story.
Like the figure on the stair in Hughes Mearns’s poem ‘Antigonish’ (from which the book takes both its title and its epigraph), Michael is the ‘man who wasn’t there’. In the brothers’ case, this is doubly and painfully true. When the book becomes a bestseller, Michael drifts out of their lives and back across the Atlantic; he is simply ‘another disappointment