I 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.
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.
I’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 give 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 Arnott’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 a 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.