Book Review: John McPake and the Sea Beggars

By Pieter Bruegel the Elder – WgFmzFNNN74nUg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Full disclosure: I know Stuart Campbell, and may buy him a pint next week.

Sprung from the canvas of a Bruegel painting, three hunters follow one of their sons across a frozen landscape. Soon, they will be carried on the muddy tide of history to their fateful meeting with the Sea Beggars, the Low Countries pirates of the title.

In a half-way house in Leith, John McPake is trapped in a vicious downward cycle born of abuse, divorce, homelessness and mental illness, his internal Voices far more audible than those of his fellow hostel residents as he circles the drain.


Are the two narratives related? Of course they are: and Stuart Campbell’s telling weaves them as skillfully as a boxer’s ducks and feints, before delivering a series of two-fisted punches to the reader’s emotional solar plexus.

This is an utterly, utterly brilliant novel, darker than the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. Cancel all appointments, call in sick if necessary, tell loved ones you’ve left the country: you’ll be dragged by your very soul through the story, willing its protagonists to win through as if they were your own blood. The last chapter brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t remember when a book last did that.

Buy it, switch off your mobile, draw down the blinds, and begin. You can thank me later.















Blah blah blah lots of adverts. Ignore them and buy the book.









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