Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo review – 19th-century prison drama

The radio DJ’s first novel for adults is a sprawling yarn about American prisoners of war incarcerated in Dartmoor

One of Britain’s best-known broadcasters and the man behind the Radio 2 book club, Simon Mayo began his writing career six years ago with a bestselling children’s trilogy. In 2016 he published a YA novel, Blame, set in a dystopian near future where the families of offenders are incarcerated for “heritage” crimes. Prisons and the tensions that threaten to undo themclearly continue to fascinate him. It is a theme he returns to in Mad Blood Stirring, his first book for adults, but this time it is not a dangerously plausible future he seeks to illuminate but a disregarded corner of the past.

The war of 1812, a three-year conflict between the United States and Britain that many in the US considered a second war of independence, is as good as forgotten in this country. Certainly almost no one remembers the thousands of American prisoners of war crammed inside the bleak walls of Dartmoor prison. Mayo’s book is vividly imagined, but much is drawn directly from the record. It is true that the 1,000 black American sailors held in Dartmoor’s Block 4 staged productions of Shakespeare during their incarceration, including Romeo and Juliet. It is also true that, when the peace signed in 1815 did not lead to the prisoners’ immediate release, the hostility between rival gangs exploded into violent bloodshed.

More than 6,000 prisoners from the Anglo-American war of 1812 were sent to Dartmoor.
More than 6,000 prisoners from the Anglo-American war of 1812 were sent to Dartmoor. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

From these real events Mayo has spun a sprawling five-act yarn of enmity, loyalty and doomed love that self-consciously mirrors Shakespeare’s tragedy. At the heart of his story are Joe Hill, a 16-year-old white boy who brings news of the peace and takes the part of Juliet, and Habs Snow, the black man who plays his Romeo. Their relationship is touching but amid the clamour and cacophony of the novel there is too little of it and it comes too late.

With its huge, amorphous cast and little interior characterisation, its pages rich with Shakespeare’s poetry and the rousing gospel music for which Block 4 was reputedly renowned, the dialogue-heavy Mad Blood Stirring reads more like a first-draft film treatment than a finished novel. Mayo has served up all the ingredients he could find, but longer cooking would have given it greater depth and subtlety of flavour.

Mad Blood Stirring is published by Doubleday. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Clare Clark

The GuardianTramp

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