‘Ingenious Pain,‘ Andrew Miller
The plot of English author Andrew Miller‘s award-winning debut novel, ‘Ingenious Pain‘, sounds like something out of a Bond movie, featuring as it does a protagonist, James Dyer, who is born without the ability to feel pain, (or, just as importantly, pleasure). Rather than leading a world revolution from a secret volcano lair, Dyer instead becomes a doctor, and the novel follows his life from an understandably difficult youth to a race through 18th century Russia on the orders of Empress Catherine of Russia.
Miller‘s style is simple, steady and often unremarkable: he summarises Dyer’s life in the first chapter, and has indeed created a protagonist with whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to relate to. But the novel was enjoyable, a minutely-researched peek into Georgian England and Russia, and did turn up a few beautiful quotes, one on our ability to turn any attribute, positive or negative, into a competition:
“Farmer Dyer, his blind daughter and lame son, are pitied. In the aristocracy of suffering, Farmer Dyer is a Lord…”
and another echoing one of my favourite authors, Alain de Botton, in his excellent ‘The Art Of Travel‘:
“It is a mistake to travel in the hopes of solving one’s problems. One merely transports them and is forced to endure them amongst strangers…”
One haunting image (pun intended) on the Doctor performing surgery on himself with the aid of a mirror:
“He begins to sew up his head, drawing together the ragged lips of the gash, and with such swiftness, such unconcern, it is – as the Reverend later writes to Lady Hallam – as if he were sewing only the head in the glass…”
And finally, on the difficulty of endings, which is something which has always haunted me in my writing, and more often than not left me disappointed with others’ writing:
“‘Well,’ says Dido, ‘if I were to write a novel I think it is the ending that should give me most trouble. Perhaps it was the same for Laurence Sterne.’
‘You mean,’ says James, ‘ it was easier for him to die than to finish the book?’…”
‘Pure,’ Andrew Miller
I happened to read Miller‘s latest book, the again-award winning ‘Pure,’ shortly after breaking my Miller cherry, and found a novel again intricately researched and paced to perfection. This time, we follow the life of up-and-coming French engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte in his attempts to make a name for himself by removing a cemetery from the central Parisian region of Les Halles. The important point is the year in which these events are taking place: 1786, a mere three years before the French revolution, and the coming social and political upheaval (familiar to anyone who has seen the recent remake of ‘Les Miserables‘ as I did this week), is a shadow excellently cast across the whole novel.
A quote on love to whet your whistle:
“But it is hard, whatever you have endured, to give up on love. Hard to stop thinking of it as a home you might one day find again. More than hard…”
and one which seemed like it could have been lifted straight from Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats,’ (if you haven’t read any Ronson, go find some: or at least rent the wonderfully bizarre Ewan McGregor and George Clooney-led film version of ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats‘):
“‘Buildings are mostly air,’ says the engineer, quoting the great Perronet. ‘Air and empty space…'”
Finally, I was introduced to Miller at a talk where the first question on everyone’s lips in the audience, (except mine, since I appeared to be the only one who hadn’t read the book yet), was: why does the cover of the novel depict a man in a gorgeous, pale blue jacket, when Baratte, specifically purchases a green one which becomes a focal point of the novel. The answer? Authors don’t have nearly as much control over the artistic side of publishing as you would have thought, (J.K.Rowling apparently being an exception).
So, I leave you with the lush, if considerably inaccurate, cover.