Hazel McHaffie

subjectivity

I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Odious comparisons

For the most part I don’t like to compare different authors. They aren’t in competition; they each have their own tale to tell, in their own way, for their own audiences. But this week in the course of reducing the number of books on my tbr bookshelves (ready for an anticipated influx next month!) I’ve been struck by the power of celebrity.

Stella Rimington? Yes, of course, we’ve all heard of her. Director General of MI5 in her professional life. High profile. Known name. But did I like her fiction? I did not. I chose At Risk – written when she’d got into her stride as a novelist. MI5 officer Liz Carlyle investigates a possible terrorist threat to a high security counter-terrorism meeting at Gleneagles. Looked promising given the author’s credentials. But … Style? No thanks. Plot? No thanks. Overall merit? No thanks. OK, this clever lady (Rimington, I mean), writing in her own area of expertise, may have successfully brought out 9 novels with bona fide publishers, but I have a sneaking suspicion her position had something to do with that. And I won’t personally be searching for more of her works.

Iain Banks? Yeah, we probably all remember his famous proposal to his girlfriend when he was terminally ill: would she do him the honour of becoming his widow. I hesitate to speak ill of the works of the dead but I’m afraid, for me, Banks has slithered into the same camp as Rimington:  Canal Dreams had little to commend it for me. A famous Japanese cellist with a fear of flying gets caught up in civil unrest in the Panama Canal aboard the tanker on which she’s a passenger. Alongside the horrors of being help captive by lawless violent men, she has a series of dark inexplicable dreams and flashbacks to various traumas in her life. Hmmm. End thought: what was there to commend this book? And yet, this guy has written and successfully published 24 novels. He is and will remain, famous. Happily he doesn’t need the endorsement of a nonentity like me.

So, my point thus far? Reading is subjective. I am not swayed by fame or fortune. I shall not like something simply because I’m told I should by others no matter how high they rank in the literary echelons. These writers don’t appeal to me. Simple as that. I did do them both the courtesy of finishing their books to give them a sporting chance (well, it’s a basic tenet of mine, not to say obsession, as you know) but that’s it.

On the other hand …

Marcelle Bernstein? Ever heard of her? Her name doesn’t crop up in quizzes, she doesn’t get major reviews, so probably not. Sacred and Profane has only one review on Amazon and yet it’s one of my top twenty favourite books. A nun collapses at prayer, crying out in agony. Thousands of miles away, a female prisoner wakes panic stricken at exactly the same moment. What links these two women? I was utterly gripped. Oh, and just so you know, Bernstein has in fact won awards as well as having many other strings to her bow.

And then there’s Jaishree Misra …? Me neither. But her book was on my shelf and I discovered this lady is high profile in India; and she’s published by mainstream publishers. Not my usual kind of reading, but I took a big breath and got stuck into Secrets and Sins by way of illustration for this blog. Riva Singh and Aman Khan meet briefly at college and have a short liaison. Now she’s a bestselling novelist and he a Bollywood heartthrob, both married to other people, when they meet again at the Cannes Film Festival. Will they follow their hearts or their heads? It wouldn’t feature on my top one hundred, I wouldn’t rush to find it’s sequel, but, viewed dispassionately, I found it easier to read that either of the celebrated works above.

However, best of all was my as-yet-unknown debut author of last week’s blog – remember him? I enjoyed his writing enormously even in its first draft form. Plot? Yes. Message? Yes. Overall merit? Yes indeedy. I guess I ought to put my mark against the day when he too is famous. You heard of him here first! He’s currently hard at work editing. Bring it on!

 

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