I’ve had a somewhat chequered relationship with Andrew Miller’s writing: his debut, Ingenious Pain, left me eager for his second novel but that left me cold. The next few were enjoyable enough but not nearly as strikingly original as the first. The only one of his novels that’s come close to matching the brilliance of that debut for me is Pure which won the Costa Book of the Year back in 2012. That hasn’t stopped me from looking forward to and reading whatever Miller comes up with next. The Crossing is his latest and it’s left me puzzling over quite what to make of it.
A young man and woman are repairing a boat. They’re both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Somehow feeling responsible for her, Tim takes her to hospital, then home seeing her through her convalescence. They pass from acquaintances to lovers almost without thought on Maud’s part, somewhat obsessively on Tim’s. Their relationship follows an apparently conventional path – a career in clinical research for Maud, living together, friends, a child – but it’s far from that. Tim and Maud are entirely different. He is open, warm and passionate while she is self-contained and unknowable, opening herself up to no one and surprised when others look askance at her tattoo which translates as ‘every man for himself’. When Zoe is born it’s Tim, whose wealthy parents support his easy pottering life, playing at musical composition, who looks after her while Maud continues to work long hours, consumed by her work. A tragic turn of events throws everything into question. As you might expect, Maud and Tim react in very different ways. The rest of the novel follows Maud’s journey towards a kind of reconciliation with what has happened.
The Crossing feels very different from anything that Miller has written before. Short, clean and plain sentences in which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, unfold this story of a disparate couple who have reversed conventional gender roles. Maud is powerfully drawn – the antithesis of what is so often expected from a woman and a mother, playing with Zoe ‘on her hands and knees, a kitten that seems to have learnt its kitten nature out of a book’. The first half of the novel is gripping, almost hypnotic in its simplicity, but towards the end of the second half when the story has become just Maud’s, I began to feel I might be venturing off into an episode of Lost, a guilty pleasure from a few years back. Maud emerges still the same yet somehow slightly softer, more human. There’s a transformative moment in Miller’s first novel when his main protagonist, who is unable to feel pain, is made human. It seemed to me that Maud underwent a similar transformation but it takes very much more than a moment. Whether you consider the novel a success may depend on your reading of this part of the book. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.