This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.
Ingenious Pain is the example I often cite when talking about the difficulty of following an impressive first novel. It’s a book I didn’t expect to love not being a huge fan of historical fiction but I found myself drawn in and entranced by it. Set in the eighteenth century, straddling the old world of quack shows and superstition and the new world of religious doubt and scientific enquiry, it’s the strange story of James Dyer.
Conceived on an icy night, the result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger, Dyer is an odd child whose inability to feel physical or emotional pain marks him out. When his family are all but wiped out by smallpox his adventures begin. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and, later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. When scandal ruins his practice he joins the race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox. En route he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers give him the gift of pain. From here the road to redemption leads through madness and eventually to a modicum of peace before he dies, aged thirty-three, in a small West Country village.
I was working in Waterstone’s when the novel was published and Andrew Miller was a local author living in Bath, a mixed blessing as any bookseller will quietly tell you. Some authors had a tendency to move their books to the front of the shop, demand to know their sales figures and castigate us for not stocking more of their titles. The epitome of modesty, Miller was the antithesis of that. Sadly, he’s never quiet matched Ingenious Pain for me although Pure came a close second.
That’s it from me this for a few days. H and I are off to explore the delights of Antwerp tomorrow. Back next week