A psychiatrist wrestles with his clients’ demons—and his own—in the first novel from Tony Blair’s former spokesperson.
Campbell (The Blair Years, 2007, etc.) set the bar high for his fiction debut, attempting to get inside the heads of numerous patients served by Martin Sturrock, one of London’s premier shrinks. And he often pulls it off; the book contains many virtuoso passages that reflect a rich understanding of depression and its victims. Martin’s clients include Ralph, whose alcoholism is derailing his career as a senior health minister; Emily, a former teacher living in seclusion since a fire disfigured her face; Arta, a refugee from Kosovo who was raped after moving to England; David, a young working-class man wracked by anxiety; and Matthew, whose affairs have prompted his wife to label him a sex addict. Experienced and middle-aged, Martin can almost treat them on autopilot; he assigns homework reading, suggests that they keep dream diaries, asks the proper questions. But after he tells Arta she must forgive the men who raped her, she flees, sparking a weekend’s worth of self-flagellation over his own shortcomings, not least his patronage of prostitutes. Ultimately, Campbell fails to construct a tenable plot from all this. Numerous threads connect all too neatly at the novel’s tragic climax, and the final pages shift into easy melodrama. Before that, though, he crafts some top-notch characterizations. A patient walk-through of Ralph’s day, drink by drink, exposes the emotional and physical devastation he’s sown in himself, and Arta’s post-rape fear of human interaction is handled with a smart mix of empathy and cold realism. These achievements make the clumsy closing chapters all the more frustrating. The author clearly wants to make a case for the complexity and value of psychiatry, but late-stage mawkishness strips the book of its power.
Campbell has a talent for imagining lost souls, but he needs a story worthy of them.