I WAS invited by The Mail on Sunday last week to write a review of Alastair Campbell’s debut novel. It’s in today’s edition, if you’re interested.
“All In The Mind” is a cracking read. Highly recommended. (That’s a summary, incidentally – not the full review. I may publish it here later.)
UPDATE at 5.50 pm: Et voila:
Given Alastair Campbell’s notorious history of mental health issues, it is perhaps understandable that the publishers of his debut work of fiction, “All In The Mind”, chose to insert the subtitle “A novel”; this is neither a psychological textbook nor, on the face of it, an autobiographical account of the battle with his own demons.
Yet it is infused, on every page, with a level of understanding of the nature of depression and an empathy with its victims that one is never quite sure how much of the detailed, intimate nature of the central characters’ thought processes is the result of research or of experience.
“All In The Mind” is a short novel detailing the lives of its main protagonists over the course of a weekend that is dramatic and consequential for all concerned. There is Arta, an asylum seeker who, having fled Kosova with her husband and child, finds herself the victim of a brutal rape in her adopted homeland; Emily, a young primary school teacher who cannot come to terms with the terrible facial scars she suffered during a house fire; David, a lonely, sensitive and intelligent man whose abandonment as a child by his father seems to be the root cause of his debilitating bouts of depression; and Ralph, a chaotic alcoholic who just doesn’t want to admit it, and whose self-destructive behaviour threatens not only his marriage but his career as a member of the Cabinet.
Linking all of these characters is Professor Martin Sturrock, a revered and successful consultant psychiatrist whose devotion to his patients not only threatens his own home life but hides the fact that he is fighting a few serious demons of his own.
But despite the dark tone of much of the book and the serious issues it seeks to illuminate, “All In The Mind” is often very funny and charming. At least one figure, Matthew Noble QC, is strangely inconsequential to the wider narrative and seems to have been included to lend light relief. But his labelling as a sex addict by his cuckolded wife and his consequent attempts at a “cure” are nevertheless highly entertaining.
It is Campbell’s eloquent and touching depiction of depression’s victims and the description of their thought processes that define this novel; anyone tempted to dismiss mental ill health as somehow less serious than various physical ailments would do well to read “All In The Mind”. Possibly more than once.
He inevitably, and fruitfully, delves into his own political and media background, referring to the prime minister (who we never meet) as “young” and whose strategy for sacking a Cabinet colleague is choreographed for maximum positive publicity. And Campbell can’t resist a dig at the cynicism of the tabloid press with a disparaging reference to The Sun hiding behind a local news agency in an attempt to avoid direct culpability for a “sting” operation against a politician.
The prose flows smoothly and naturally, Campbell showing off writing skills he would not have been able to use to full effect when a tabloid journalist himself. His harrowing depiction of the rape is intimate and personal without being mawkish or explicit.
His most courageous decision as an author, though, is in piling on the paradoxes of his central character. Here is the hero of the piece, a healer who needs healing himself, but who is not only a regular user of prostitutes but who also lusts after one of his own patients who has herself been raped and forced into prostitution.
Campbell’s triumph is in his portrayal of ordinary people’s ordinary lives, and his exploration of the imperfection of heroism. They could only have been successfully delivered by someone with the appropriate levels of skill, sensitivity and empathy, which Campbell clearly has in spades.
For all its dark subject matter, “All In The Mind” is surprisingly uplifting and optimistic. It is also one of the few books I have ever read which has brought me close to tears in its closing pages.
“All In The Mind” by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson. Available from Amazon.