Sailor's Heart is an absorbing novel which highlights the resilience and endurance of those who served on the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War, says Julia Jones

Sailor’s Heart
Martin Campbell
Mighty Pens, £11.99

This absorbing novel follows the experiences of three men serving below decks on the Arctic Convoys in 1942.

Clarence the engineer holds himself responsible for a horrific accident; circus-born Marco is bullied and cannot make himself understood through his Gypsy dialect; the combination of harsh experience at sea and tragedy ashore shatters ASDIC operator Duncan’s system of belief.

All three men are sent to HMS Standard, a ‘stone frigate’ at Kieldar in Northumberland.

Though the characters are fictional, this was real.

From 1942-1945 HMS Standard functioned as a Navy-run assessment and rehabilitation unit designed to treat service personnel who had been diagnosed with personality disorder.

Official figures show it was often successful in its objective of returning men to service.

Longer term therapeutic benefits are less certain and, as Martin Campbell postulates, an institution of this sort may offer licence to an ambitious psychiatrist to attempt dangerous experiments without sanction or supervision.

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Campbell has done his research and draws unsettling conclusions.

Admirers of Nic Compton’s non-fiction study of madness at sea Off the Deep End with its arresting introduction relating his father’s wartime experience to post war PSTD — or anyone who has read participant accounts of the arctic convoys — will have no difficulty accepting the likelihood of permanent psychological damage.

In wartime, however, the Navy’s overriding aim was to get its sailors back to sea.

Such utilitarianism, while understandable in the circumstances, was likely to bear harshly on vulnerable individuals.

The three men at the centre of this novel are well imagined and originally conceived.

This reader at least had no difficulty empathising and becoming involved in their individual bewilderment and anguish and cheering them on in their subsequent adventures.

Sailor’s Heart is not a polemic.

It’s a satisfying novel on many levels, perhaps less about courage than bedrock survival of the individual human psyche, the capacity for endurance and resilience, the mutual support – and the little bits of luck, which may help damaged people through darkest times.

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