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Written from the head rather than from the heart
on 9 November 2008
The former spin-doctor for the Labour government and writer of the generally well-received work of non-fiction THE BLAIR YEARS now turns his hand to writing a novel for the first time, and in doing so reveals some of the vices of his own past in a story that has acknowledged adaptations of autobiographical events. Drawing on personal experiences of depression and alcoholic addiction, All in the Mind explores mental illness and alcoholism by way of a cast of a psychiatrist and six of his patients spread over a period of just four days. Central character Professor Martin Sturrock harbours secrets of his own and it emerges that he is as desperate for help as his patients, one of whom is a politician with drinking problems and another is someone who has a psychotic breakdown similar to an experience the author suffered some twenty years ago.
Cynics might argue that this is not in fact Campbell's first stab at fiction and that he should be credited with the infamous `dodgey dossier' of 2003 that led to the invasion of Iraq, even if he was later officially exonerated. This new novel won't attract any allegations of scandalous untruth made against it, and while it feels authentic - the author having experienced most of these personal problems directly or indirectly - there is something of a dramatic void with regard to the narration and the reader might sense that Campbell could have dropped to deeper and darker depths of his soul in describing the stresses that the various characters endure. In his own life he has presumably come out of the darkness and up into the light a survivor, and possibly as a consequence the general flavour of the story is not the one of hopelessness or despair that might otherwise have tugged more passionately at the reader's heartstrings. The first fifty to a hundred pages are impressively brave and the writing is confident, fascinating and audacious, but eventually it becomes clear that the six patients are not so much characters as characteristics of the conditions they suffer from, and this gives off a feeling of banality as opposed to in-depth character study. The result is a book that feels more like a mildly fictionalised series of real-life accounts of depression and addiction, written intelligently but lacking the heart and passion of a decent novel. There is an air of incompleteness about it, by which I mean that the synopsis is interesting but a good editor would probably hand it back to Campbell and tell him to flesh out these characters more richly so that the re-written manuscript felt more like a work of fiction as opposed to a slightly uncomfortable account of actual events and experiences from the author's own life. Instead it feels halfway between fact and fiction and lacking the flair of a true story-teller. Interesting, though.