The Crossing by Andrew Miller: Something of an enigma

Cover image 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.

14 thoughts on “The Crossing by Andrew Miller: Something of an enigma”

  1. Miller is one on a (too) long list of writers whose work I have yet to read. I did reserve ‘Pure’ from the library but it arrived along with half a dozen others (how often the library system seems to do that too me!) and I had to return it unread. Should I start with that and risk being disappointed by anything else I then read or would you suggest beginning elsewhere?

    1. That’s a tricky one, Alex. I still feel that Ingenious Pain, which won him the IMPAC prize, is his best so I’d recommend starting there but Pure is a close second. All his other novels, apart from Casanova, are set in the present so it rather depends on how you feel about historical fiction. This latest one is quite intriguing.

    1. I think if you liked Pure you’d enjoy Ingenious Pain, Rebecca. This one’s very different, obviously. I don’t want to put you off – I thought Miller’s characterisation was excellent, particularly with Maud, but I don’t feel the novel’s an unqualified success. Certainly worth reading, though.

  2. A really interesting review. I loved Ingenious Pain, and like you, anticipated each new novel from Miller with interest, but always felt they never quite lived up to his first. I will read this, but continue to hope that he reaches the heights of ingenious Pain again at some point!

  3. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction – have to be in the right mood for it – but Ingenious Pain does sound fascinating. I think I might start with that one when exploring Andrew Miller.

  4. I smiled reading your opening paragraph – that’s exactly how I feel about Miller, though I think I skipped a couple before Pure having rather given up on him. Your comments on this at the very least leave me intrigued.

  5. I haven’t read any of his other books… not sure why. Something about the summaries is usually off-putting to me. But this one sounds potentially more interesting than the others. Perhaps this will be the year when I give him a go!

    1. He’s well worth trying although I’d start with Ingenious Pain or Pure. This one was a bit of a head-scratcher for me.

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