Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review of 'John McPake and the Sea Beggars' by Stuart Campbell

Hello, fellow reader, and welcome back to Rosalie Reviews - my first post for quite a while. I've been doing a lot of reading in my absence and have a good many titles I'd like to review for you. The first one has to be John McPake and the Sea Beggars, by Stuart Campbell - an absolute stunner of a book, for reasons I will now try to explain.

As someone who lives with a recurrent mental health problem, I'm always interested to see how writers tackle issues of mental health. There is a place in literature, I believe, for characters who 'just happen' to suffer from mental illness, in a way that's more or less incidental to the plot. Ditto characters with disabilities and conditions of all kinds, in books, plays and films for both children and adults. This is all part of the much-needed process of 'normalising' these conditions.

But there's also a place for such issues to be placed centre-stage, and that's definitely the case in Stuart Campbell's superb new novel.

John McPake, the protagonist, is a former teacher who lives in Edinburgh. He had a difficult childhood, which may be one of the reasons that he suffers from schizophrenia. John's illness has wrecked his career and his marriage, and he now lives in a hostel with a number of other residents and the long-suffering and stout-hearted manager Beverley, who looks after them all.

John, it soons becomes clear, is an educated man with a sense of humour and a kindly outlook towards his fellow man. But his illness means that he lives a life accompanied by 'voices' - a motley, disruptive and mainly unpleasant set of characters who between them barely give John a moment's peace. There's the Narrator, who has taken it upon himself to 'tell' and interpret the events of John's daily life. There's the Academic, who knows rather too much about everything and likes to shout about it, and the Bastard, who is basically a bastard to John, relentlessly insulting, mocking and putting him down in every possible way. Then there's the Tempter, who sometimes offers John a glimpse of (false) hope and encourages him to do some rather stupid things, and finally the Jester, whose sense of humour may occasionally entertain our hero but mostly drives him to despair.

I do not suffer from schizophrenia myself, so please forgive me if I've got this wrong, but my understanding of the 'voices' is that they are not like the metaphorical voices we all 'hear' inside our heads from time to time - the ones we may call, for instance, our conscience or our inner bitch. The voices associated with psychosis/schizophrenia are real, actual voices, belonging to real, actual people who are impossible to ignore. In fact, John seems to have lost his own voice, his true identity, in among constant railing of the 'others' who inhabit his head.

Reading about this from John's point of view affected me deeply. I had not realised quite how unremittingly awful the condition must be. But Stuart Campbell's genius is that, while John cannot find his real self, he somehow reveals that self to us, his readers, and we find ourselves respecting, liking and even laughing with (not at) this canny man.

I lived in Edinburgh for many years and still miss it every day. One of the joys of this book for me was revisiting places like Leith Walk, Great Junction Street, Middle Meadow Walk, Arthur's Seat... and discovering that John McPake used to teach just down the road from me, at Gracemount High. The smell of Auld Reekie, the morning mist on the Meadows and the sands of Portobello beach eneveloped me, as I read the book, with a big nostalgic hug.

I also loved John's quirky and truculent fellow hostel-dwellers. Loved them as fictional characters, that is. Not sure I'd want to live with them.

John, throughout the book, is looking for his long-lost brother Andy, and this is where his story interwines with another tale, set in a very different time and place. We are transported every now and then to sixteenth century Holland, where a band of three male friends are on a quest to find the missing son of one of them, who has been stolen by the Spanish militia. Their adventures are partly based on paintings by Bruegel (Hunters in the Snow, The Corn Harvest and others). We read of horrific torture by the Spanish Inquisition and of starvation and despair, but also of the mutual solidarity of these three brave men.

The two stories - John McPake's and that of the Dutchmen - gradually become more closely meshed. We learn that John loves the paintings of Bruegel, and realise that the Sea Beggars story is actually being played out inside his head. Somewhere here, there may be a key to John's distress and even a source of hope. I won't give anything away except to say that the book ends on an upbeat note for John.

It's difficult to express how moved I was by this book, in so many different ways. Though I don't have schizophrenia, I suffer from recurrent depression and I have a harsh and critical inner voice that comes to the fore when I have an attack. Perhaps everyone can associate with such a voice, which is not 'real' in the sense that a schizophrenic voice is real, but which can nevertheless hit you with the force of a stone-filled snowball and lay you low with its accusations. Certainly one of the things that mental illness can do is to exaggerate such voices to a debilitating degree.

Anyway, as explained above, Stuart Campbell's book resonated with me in all sorts of ways. Well done to him for finding such an imaginative and creative way of writing about mental illness, for helping me to laugh at myself and for creating the brilliant and wonderful John McPake, who I want to be pals with for life.

Title: John McPake and the Sea Beggars
Author: Stuart Campbell
Publisher: Sandstone Press
Year of Publication: 2014

Happy reading!
All best wishes,