David Miller
Atlantic Books, 176pp, £12.99

David Miller, writing his first novel, gets off to a shaky start. He gives us three epigraphs to tell us what Today is about, then three pages of dramatis personae to tell us who it's about, but he shouldn't have gone to the trouble. Confidence in the evoking of mood and in staging the comings and goings of its large cast, and clarity in the dramatising of themes and the characterising of central players, are only the most prominent of this book's many qualities.

The novel takes place over three days in August 1924, during which relatives, friends, onlookers and staff congregated at or passing through Oswalds, a house near Canterbury, react to the death of the head of the household. This grand and beloved figure is identified only as JC, except on one occasion, when his younger son, John Korzeniowski, just turned 18, watches his bullish older brother, Borys, imitating his father's signature: "the h looping on to the beginning of the next word to the top of the C . . . The p attached to the h, the o crossed by a line from h to C and that deep dash back, to the left of the d". Even the dramatis personae, which identifies "a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse", does not call him Joseph Conrad. A passive figure in the novel's action, Conrad exists as the focal point for the memories of others, especially those of his gentle younger son and his secretary, Lilian Hallowes, who featured in the title story of Cynthia Ozick's recent Dictation.

The back cover of Today has a puff from Ozick, who compares the book to Genesis, but a more realistic comparison might be to Penelope Fitzgerald's novels The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower. There is more than a hint of Fitzgerald's crisp classicism in the cool-water purity and freshness of Miller's prose. Even at his most exotic and exact - describing puddles that "seemed to simmer like the surface of a stockpot" or a priest looking "trim, rosy-cheeked, almost holidayed" - he is never peacockish.

He also has a gift for generating the type of telling small detail, often relating to gestures of unwitting self-disclosure or intended self-concealment, that is peculiarly well-facilitated by the third-person novel: "Borys shrugged off a small, unnecessary laugh that was not entirely there in the first place." In one of many instances of ungloating perceptiveness (and careful punctuation), John, having just blinked, "felt shocked by the dimmed green dazzle of the trees, the luminous grass, and felt tears behind his eyes, but he blinked them back and went inside, to be a man".

Both Lilian, on her way to Oswalds, and Conrad, on his deathbed, are reading A Passage to India, and if Miller does not quite have Fitzgerald's slyness and slippery wit, it is because he also has a taste for the declarative, unironic briskness associated with E M Forster. He employs a narrative voice, decorous but not stuffy, straight-talking without being glib, that knows the facts of the story better than any of the characters but also understands a wide range of their feelings, and is equally at home with natural splendour and mental drift.

Miller does terrific things with language, but not blindly. Though Conrad's fiction is not discussed, the novel appears to be guided by a sentence from the beginning of Under Western Eyes: "Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality." Lilian, as secretary and bookworm, thinks not of "words" but of "words", and "loved the Bible or, at least, its words", but she is also aware of the arbitrariness of usage: "For much of her life she had been called a typewriter, and now her profession was the name of a sort of machine." On the day of JC's funeral and burial, John feels a mixture of pride at his maturity and shame at his fraudulence for "saying the right thing" to the other mourners - "the charmingly, appropriately null thing". He also reflects that Borys would continue to be his "brother", whereas in reality they would be "men who once had the same father".

The only word that seems to serve its function is "nothing"; like numbness and grief, it is a presence that signals an absence. After kissing "the forehead of what had once been his father", John "felt no loss, simply absence, shapeless, soundless nothing". Lilian breathes in the odour of JC's pen nib, seeking "the old smell of his tobacco or else some other scent of the man": "There was nothing." Sometimes, in the right circumstances, the things "worth saying" do get said or at least hinted at, though more often on paper than in speech; there is, after all, a world of difference between the language favoured by social custom and the language of literature, as this novel shows. l

Leo Robson is lead fiction reviewer of the NS

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?