Tag Archives: Ingenious Pain

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover imageI have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

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

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, 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. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

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.

The second novel conundrum

Cover imageI’ve been circling warily around Andrew Miller’s Costa Prize winning Pure for some time now. Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, is one of my favourite books. Set in the 18th century, its main protagonist, James Dyer, is conceived on an icy night as a result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger. James cannot feel pain which appears to be a blessing but is, of course, a curse because he’s unable to understand the human condition. 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. His greatest and final adventure is to take part in a race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox, and it’s on this journey that he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers Puregive him the gift of pain. There, just writing that has made me want to rush off and read it for the third time. Ingenious Pain was published in 1997 and every time I’ve got wind of a new Miller novel I’ve looked forward to it eagerly. It’s not that they’ve been bad novels – far from it – but none has matched the magic of his debut for me hence the hesitation over Pure even though several people whose opinions I trust assured me that this one really did hit the spot. I’m half-way through the tale of the clearing of Les Innocents Cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris and although not quite as smitten as I was by Ingenious Pain it’s a close run thing.

As a keen reader of debuts, always on the hunt for new talent, I’ve found that the second novel is often a disappointment. Jake The Long FirmArnott’s excellent The Long Firm is a case in point. Set in mid-60s London it explores the sinister underworld of gangland London and is written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, not too mention sufficient period accuracy to satisfy even my contemporary historian partner. Sadly the next two in the trilogy didn’t cut it for me. T C Boyle’s Water Music is Water  Musica rattling good yarn based on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger. It’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment and is very funny indeed but my copy of Budding Prospects, Boyle’s second novel, landed up in a charity shop. Of course, it’s not always the case – Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a joy as is everything else she’s written, and Audrey Niffenegger did a fine job with Her Fearful Symmetry after The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it’s happened enough to make me wonder why given that most of us get better at something the more we do it. Perhaps it’s the rabbit in the headlights syndrome – having laboured away quietly, some times for years, suddenly having so many expectations from both readers and publishers must weigh heavily. Perhaps it’s having the luxury of time to lavish on writing and research the first time around and being rushed the second. Or maybe I’m just being greedy.