So many books and dramas are set in the Second World War. But before this summer, I’d never read one set in Malta. Man At Sea by Liam Bell doesn’t just put you in the heart of a desolate war-torn island in the Mediterranean. It makes you want to shelter under the table with your arms above your head. And then there’s the tedium of daily hunger.
But let me back track.
The book starts in 1941, with 11-year-old Joe. “Making cylinders with his hands, like binoculars”, he’s spying on the telegram boy who’s delivering a message to his grandmother.
Joe’s story is interwoven and directly linked to that of former RAF pilot, Stuart in 1961. Wanting to find the traitor who sabotaged his engine 20 years before, Stuart’s arrives in Malta with his former nurse, Beth. And Beth was married to Joe’s dad, who, the last anyone heard, was lost at sea.
Keeping it real
Bell captures brilliantly the thought processes of a boy living through hell. When the siren sounds, we see this poor kid trying to work out whether to go to the shelter or keep his place in the food queue, as he’s been told.
We watch as he works out what’s falling from the sky. And we feel blast with him:
“something you can’t brace against – knocking air from your lungs, pressing against your eyes, muting every sound but the blood pulsing in your ears”.
There is no glamorising war in this novel. Unsurprisingly perhaps when you consider the ethos of its publisher, Fly on the Wall Press – which is “Political. Accessible. Ethical.”
Similarly, Stuart’s burns, and the suffering he’s endured trying to recover, are far from cosmetic. I’m very squeamish, so I’m not going to quote the medical detail that explains why “every blink was an agony”. Or the horrifying effects of “the first treatment [that] was tannic acid like you’d use on a hide”.
But I will say the exact placing of these details within the events of the story, is masterful and explains why Stuart – a kind, mild man – is so obsessed with revenge.
As I carry on writing this review, I feel I’m getting dangerously close to adding some spoilers. So, I’d better stop. All I’ll say about the plot is, while it twists and turns, it was the setting that kept me turning the pages. This is definitely a great book if you like being transported to another time and place.