Blasts from the Past: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (1997)

Cover imageThis 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

24 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (1997)”

  1. I bought this after you recommended it a while ago. Haven’t got to it yet but I added it to my PhD pile as seems (tangentially) relevant to my work.

    Love your comment about local authors! I’m laughing but I bet it’s awful to be on the receiving end.

  2. I totally agree – I loved this when it came out and was so excited by this new author, but he’s never quite matched it. I’ve not read Pure although I have a copy buried in the TBR somewhere so I’ll dig it out.

  3. I am really loving this series you are doing. Makes me think of all the books I read pre-blog days. I really enjoyed your story about the author as well! And have a great trip to Antwerp, Susan!

    1. Thanks, Melissa. They’re so enjoyable to write. Makes me remember what I was doing when I read the book as well as the book itself. Andrew Miller’s modesty made such an impression on me! Perhaps there’s an inverse relationship between the ability to write and self-promotion.

  4. Enjoy your trip to Antwerp!
    I have to admit I haven’t read Andrew Miller yet – although I have The Crossing on my TBR pile. This sounds like a very strange, unexpected story.

    1. Thank you, Marina. I found it intriguing and wonderfully atmospheric. It set the bar extremely high. I realised this morning when posting this that the novel is twenty years old!

        1. Thank you. I’m only surprised at the timing – it was the first anniversary of the Brussels bombings yesterday so it seemed likely it would be marked in some way. I suspect there’ll be more security on Eurostar than usual.

  5. I intended to read this years ago and never got around to it. Perhaps one day. Enjoy Antwerp, it is a lovely city. There’s a lovely restaurant called “De Bomma” or ‘Grandma’s’ which do lovely homecooked style foods, stews and traditional Belgian food. Went there with some work colleagues last year and it was very nice. Also recommend De Pelgrom beer cellar which is nicely atmospheric and offers a very decent sampling of Belgian beers.

    1. I’ve just booked De Bomma for tomorrow night. Thanks for the recommendation, Belinda. H is also keen to try out the beer cellar. I’m sure we’ll manage to cram in a few museums between the eating and drinking!

    1. Thanks, Rebecca, and if you loved Pure I’m pretty sure you’ll feel the same way about Ingenious Pain.

  6. Loved this book, though for me Pure is probably my favourite. I’ve also enjoyed some of his “modern” novels. The one that disappointed me was Casanova. I think his historical fiction is when he takes and event or idea and lets loose.

    1. Oh yes, Casanova was a terrible disappointment, particularly as it came straight after Ingenious Pain but despite that I think you’re right about his historical fiction. His contemporary novels are enjoyable enough but they lack the same spark.

  7. As usual, this sounds like something I’d like! (I sometimes wish my preferences were more limited. But not really.)
    Have a wonderful holiday!

    1. Let’s mine that backlist! Thanks, Kate. It was most enjoyable, even if I managed not to have a waffle – how can this be…

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