"John McPake and the Sea Beggars" by Stuart Campbell is a truly remarkable book: a book that gives a deeply affecting insight into a world none of us would wish to inhabit, but a world that is the everyday existence of too many of our fellow citizens. John McPake was once a husband and a teacher. Now he is defined only by his mental illness. He is suffering from psychosis and his day to day consciousness has been taken over by the voices in his head. There's the Tempter, who is always trying to talk John into giving life to his desires; the Academic, a knowledgable pedant; the Bastard, who can take a negative view of every situation; and the Narrator, who has taken over as the main voice and effectively supplanted John himself, whose own identity seems submerged by the voices and by his experience of ECT and powerful prescription drugs. And in the background is John's constant fixation on finding his long-lost brother.
Throughout the book we find ourselves moving backwards and forwards between John's hostel in Leith and another world that only exists inside his head. An obsession with the paintings of Breughel has developed into a full-blown delusion, and we find ourselves inside a series of his pictures, following the 16th Century weaver Johannes as he travels with his friends Balthazar and Cornelius across a frozen and war-torn Dutch landscape in search of his son, who has been abducted by Spanish mercenaries. The journey of the three friends in search of Johannes' son is no less of a nightmare, and to John no less real, than his life in the here-and-now and his efforts to find his brother; and as the book develops, the two strands of John's story increasingly merge and interact.
The result is a superb book, albeit one that is at times as uncomfortable as it is compelling. And as John sinks deeper into a morass partly of his own creation in modern Scotland, and entirely of his own making in 16th Century Holland, it becomes very hard to understand how he is ever going to find a way out. The conclusion of the book is perhaps its most remarkable feature, though we'll let you find out why for yourself. We emerged with a much better understanding of this particular aspect of mental illness, and with the feeling of having come to the end of a journey - more accurately of two converging journeys - that were well worth making and ultimately deeply satisfying.