(Fly on the Wall Press, 2022); pbk £9.99
Liam Bell’s Man at Sea is a genre-defying delight that interrogates and reimagines the classic war novel. A domestic mystery set in Malta across the 1940s and 1960s, Man at Sea, follows the story of a former airman trying to reunite his old friend, Beth, with the son of her late wartime husband. The narrative is split between the airman, Stuart, and Beth’s stepson, with the former narrating the investigation alongside Beth during the 1960s. Beth’s Stepson acts as the second narrator, following his experience of the Siege of Malta through the 1940s. More than anything, this story is about the bonds people form through pain and fear and how complicated the love and relationships that arise from these shared experiences can be: ‘Could you not have left them a letter, huh? Just a word or two?’
The novel avoids the grandiose misery of the archetypal wartime narrative, focusing on intricate personal struggles and complex social and political issues with an emotional, character-driven story. The war may be the catalyst for the connections and drives of the characters, but it is not the basis for the story’s central conflict. Instead, Bell gives the pivotal cast that narrative agency. Their actions, the fear, and the pain that compels them to propel the story forward. The main cast’s flaws and complex relationships often prove a more destructive force than the war itself. This is not to say that the setting is inconsequential; it’s the formative experience from which the themes and story are drawn. For a book focused on unanswered questions, this ability to transcend the expectations of grandiosity inherent to the historical war fiction genre keeps the plot captivating and fresh.
You couldn’t commit treason against the memory of cycling to Mġarr to fetch a wet nurse while your heart was breaking. Taking the hand of someone called Blanch in a place called Brighton couldn’t be treason.
The split narrative effectively builds the tense atmosphere that permeates the book; the layers of falsehoods, secrets, and interpersonal complexities are drawn as the tale is woven. Rather than interrupting the story, the dual narration is conversational; one viewpoint responds to the other, asking and answering questions without breaking the narrative structure. The relationship between the two time periods is well-developed, giving enough space for characters to have changed beyond the scope of the audience’s ability to predict their actions. It is also an effective thematic device, with the healing wounds of the Second World War seen through the rising tensions of the Cold War.
Those were groups for servicemen saved by parachute and by inflatable dinghy. “I didn’t meet the requirements for the other two, I’m afraid”
“Bad luck,” Joe said. “Maybe next war, eh?”
“I’d cross my fingers if I could”
While the Second World War is a catalyst for the plot and a formative part of the characters’ personal experiences, it takes a backseat to their choices. In this regard, spending more time exploring their lives and motivations in the opening chapters would have been appreciated. As it is, Man at Sea feels very brief, though that brevity will undoubtedly be appreciated by people who are more interested in the central story than the background characters. It is always a bittersweet note when you wish that you could have spent more time with a book, but it is also a testament to the quality of writing. Overall, it is a very engaging read and a refreshing take on a staple genre, with simple language making it accessible to a broad audience.