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"This is a treasure" - John McPake and the Sea Beggars

I loved this book. Every brush stroke, in every corner of its canvas is rich and funny; painted with craftsmanship and beauty.

There. I’ve said it. Out loud. I know a book review should never start like this but it had to be said – shouted - from the outset: This is treasure!

What a mix it is. Three 16th century characters wade through snow-covered and water-soaked landscapes searching for a child kidnapped by Spanish invaders; dogs at their heels, a skeletal bird above their heads. Somehow alongside, a man – a voice-hearing man – wanders the streets of contemporary Edinburgh searching for himself and his brother. This wonderfully complex plot steers majestically from a little known aspect of European history into the swirling seas of mental illness in the 21st century. What a combination. What a challenge.

Let’s start with the Flemish boys - hearty weavers (subtle metaphors abound in this novel) who emerge from Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow and who wander through The Peasant Wedding and into The Triumph of Death. Campbell dramatically dovetails us into the Bruegel paintings and leads us through the scenes and landscapes (I tasted the wine at that wedding). I found myself searching on the net for these beautiful paintings that I have only known by way of Christmas cards and High School enthusiasm. What a joy to be sent on a journey into Flemish religious history and Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs. I find it is so exciting when writing takes us beyond the plot and the characters - out the other side - to new lands and ideas.

Now to John - to the modern thread of this dexterously woven, highly structured story. I am pretty certain that we all have an internal voice that jogs along with us, commenting on daily issues and thoughts. For some people it may be that the origin of this voice becomes disconnected and divided from themselves, becoming specific in nature. This is voice-hearing. We are closer than we think. John hears a constant flow of voices that comment on and guide his every thought, gesture and indecision. The voices have become characters – the Jester, the Academic, the Bastard and the Narrator (echoes of Tristram Shandy here).

Campbell helps us to grasp the ‘absolutely-no-space-left-for-any-other-thinking’ nature of a mind filled (literally) with voices stronger than our own. Voice-hearers are part of our communities - neighbours, friends, perhaps. John’s experiences bring about a desire to understand and to empathise. I am strongly reminded that novels can have an important role in helping us to share and connect.

Obviously, just as a reviewer should never declare their love for a novel, equally they should never comment on the final scene. But how can I stop myself from commenting on the most beautiful thing? I cannot. The end is like a friend taking your hand and brushing you with a feather, kissing you goodbye, a safe journey. Rarely is writing so delicate.

Jane Verburg, Northwords Now, Autumn 2014

Stuart Campbell

Stuart Campbell