Man at Sea

Liam Bell

Fly on the Wall, £9.99

BOTH literally and figuratively, Stuart Mallinson has borne the scars of World War Two for 20 years. Badly burned after his Hurricane caught fire on a Malta airfield, his face and hands were reconstructed by plastic surgeons in a gruelling series of operations, leaving him with “eyes that were one-up, one-down”. Now, in 1961, the Stonehaven-born Stuart works in a whisky warehouse near Stirling.

All these years, he’s held a torch for Elizabeth Blanch, the nurse who tended to him as he recovered. Although they’ve stayed in touch, he’s never told Beth of his attraction to her because she suffers from anxiety “and he didn’t want her to dwell on it”. Nor does he want to make advances that she might give in to “from some well-intentioned sense of pity”. He would also be competing with the widowed nurse’s memories of her Maltese husband, Victor, who died at sea shortly after they got married in England in 1941. But now Beth wants him to accompany her to Malta, to help her seek out Joe, the step-son she’s never met.

Stuart is happy to go along with anything that might bring him closer to Beth, but he also has an ulterior motive for going back. He has always believed that his plane caught fire as the result of sabotage. He remembers noticing a member of the ground crew he didn’t recognise that day, and is convinced that the man was responsible for his life-changing injuries. He has long fantasised about making the journey back to Malta, finding him and exacting revenge.

Alternate chapters take us back to 1941 and the young Joe, who, having already lost his mother in childbirth, is living with his grandmother and trying to come to terms with his father being away at war. The last word that came from Victor was a telegram announcing that he’d married an Englishwoman, and Joe fears that he has left his old life behind and might never return.

In the meantime, Joe has to live with the terrible pummelling Malta is taking from the Italian and German air forces (the island was later awarded a George Cross in recognition of its ordeal) while poring over the home-made dictionaries he and Victor wrote together and getting to know the family of refugees who have taken up residence in his grandmother’s house. What ensues will have repercussions 20 years down the line when Stuart and Beth come to Malta to lay rest to old ghosts, settle old debts and put old wrongs to right.

Born in Orkney, raised in Glasgow and now teaching at the University of Stirling, Liam Bell’s restrained prose and muted moods convey beautifully the melancholia that pervades the story from the outset. Young Joe’s feeling of abandonment. The isolation Stuart has experienced as a result of his brush with death and subsequent disfigurement, and the years that have been stoically wasted since. Beth’s fragility, her inability to move on until she has made contact with her stepson and the faint hope that her husband might somehow, after all these years, still be alive.

Man at Sea is partly a study of treachery, forgiveness and the thirst for revenge, but its principal concern is the consequences of clinging on to memories while life passes by. And while some are clinging to them too tightly, others are using them as a shield, a mirror or a means of misdirection. A lean, direct novel weaving a delicate blend of starkness and sensuality, its downbeat tone has, by the end, resolved into a quiet optimism.