Sailor’s Heart

Martin Campbell

Mighty Pens, £11.95

IF you were to try to locate the naval base HMS Standard today, you’d have to dive 170 feet down into the Kielder Water reservoir in Northumberland to find what’s left of it. But during World War II, before the site was flooded, it served as a rehabilitation centre for sailors who had suffered mental breakdowns under the intense pressure of active service. The subject of Greenock-born Martin Campbell’s second novel is three fictional seamen who suffered from “Sailor’s Heart”, losing the will to fight, and even the will to live, and were sent to Kielder to recover from their traumas.

His trio of central characters are classified as Clarence the Coward, Marco the Malingerer and Duncan the Dodger, and the chapters in which they are introduced to us are a compelling blend of solid character-work and exhaustive research. Clarence is a big hairy man with a natural gift for engineering. Marco grew up in a circus before joining the Royal Navy as a gunner. Duncan grew up with lies, and is questioning his faith in everything. Each has his own specific route to hell. Clarence is virtually catatonic after becoming convinced that he was responsible for the gruesome death of a shipmate. Marco, continually demeaned by a senior officer, suffers agonising stomach pains for which no physical cause can be found. Duncan goes AWOL after his brother’s senseless death, and is becoming aware of how he’s been mentally conditioned by the Navy.

It’s sometimes hard to tell where fact ends and fiction begins in this fascinating and highly readable novel. I’ve pretty much concluded that Dr James Dowden-Ballard, who subjected his patients to hazardous and questionable treatments in the 1750s, is as much a figment of Campbell’s imagination as his descendant Dr A. John D. Ballard, who does the same thing at Kielder in the 1940s, although Campbell’s imaginative flights are as wickedly convincing as his historically accurate detail.

According to his bio, Campbell is a clinical psychologist who has in the past worked as a window cleaner, ambulance driver, care worker and bottle washer. These chapters, though, give the impression of being written by someone with first-hand knowledge of serving in the Royal Navy during World War II. The minute details of living and working at sea during wartime are woven expertly into each man’s story, in immersive detail, without the reader ever feeling on the receiving end of an info-dump.

The same can’t be said, however, for an awkward chapter in the middle, which puts the narrative on hold to bring us up to speed on the casualty numbers and psychiatric referrals suffered by the armed forces, along with other research that Campbell seemingly couldn’t find a way of integrating into the storyline.

At Kielder, psychiatrist Dr Ballard is clearly working in the dark, hoping that he will happen upon some methodology that will turn his patients back into fighting men. This leads to him testing out a risky new treatment on Clarence, which is at least partly responsible for the three men making a pact to make a run for it.

The challenge for these damaged men is less about physically escaping from the compound as facing up to their shame of falling short of what their country required of them, and coming to terms with who they are. What really strikes home in this compassionate, absorbing novel is how, as they bond in their quiet, phlegmatic way, three men branded as cowards demonstrate a resilience that would put the rest of us to shame.