Unusually for a novelist, what interests Andrew Miller – who won the 2011 Costa Book Award with his sixth novel, Pure – is a lack of feeling rather than an excess of it. Ingenious Pain featured a man who was unable to feel either pleasure or pain; Casanova dealt with a figure forced to confront emotion for the first time in his life; Pure was about the clearance of a cemetery in Paris and the efforts of its main protagonist to keep his equanimity in the face of so much death. Miller’s new novel also centres on a character who has an irregularity in her emotional DNA.
Maud is self-contained to the point of blankness, laconic to the point of mute. There is nothing about her to suggest “she is not already complete”. She has a tattoo on her wrist reading “Sauve qui peut”, which roughly translates as “Every man for himself”, a message that could be a warning to others or an instruction to herself. Although she doesn’t need other people, there is something about her that draws them in to help her. One of those who “flit around her like moths” is Tim, a fellow member of the university sailing club. As they repair a boat propped up on the boatyard hardstanding, Tim watches stupefied as Maud falls from the deck on to the concrete. She lies there, seemingly dead, but suddenly she rises,
“reassembling herself out of the bricks and flowers around her”. Caring for the “broken girl, the miraculous girl” in the weeks that follow is what passes for their courtship.
It is a lopsided relationship. Maud’s parents are teachers from Swindon while Tim’s family is moneyed – it takes the local hunt 20 minutes to cross their land. The emotional disparity is just as wide. When Tim and Maud make love, “Each time . . . he wants to drive her mad but each time it’s himself he drives mad.” Nevertheless, they move in together, buy a boat and buy a house. Maud gets a job in biotech (in the interview, she is asked what, if she were a drink, it would be; “Water,” she replies), while Tim cooks, does yoga and composes music. They soon have a child, Zoe, but Maud feels no emotional link with her, as though she were Tim’s alone and not hers, too.
Miller narrates all of this in elegant, no-nonsense sentences, deftly building the sense of unease that Maud engenders as if, in her “rooted calm, that uncanny stillness”, she were more Midwich cuckoo than partner and mother. He plays, too, with the social inequalities of Tim’s and Maud’s families, Tim’s mother talking to Maud’s “like the Prime Minister’s wife to the consort of an African president”. Where Miller particularly excels is in making the reader know that this is leading somewhere but without any idea where that might be.
When the crisis comes, the novel changes completely and the stealthy domestic psychological drama is jettisoned in favour of an adventure yarn. Maud takes to the sea and sets sail across the Atlantic in her small boat. In taking this fight-or-flight decision, however, she forgets the cardinal rule of running away: “never to assume that what you’re running from isn’t somehow ahead of you”. This section of the book is a curious affair, mixing elements of the story of Donald Crowhurst, the sailor who went missing in 1969 during a round-the-world yacht race, with Robinson Crusoe and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.
Maud faces doldrums and storms (Miller is superb on the sea and the minutiae of sailing) before washing up, Viola-like, on a distant shore. Once she’s back on dry land, everything turns odder still, in ways it would be unfair to describe, as the narrative pushes her closer to finding catharsis and the simple humanity she lacks.
There are really three conjoined stories here, each one, thanks to Miller’s lovely prose, immaculate in its own right and each tinged with other-worldliness. The trouble for the reader lies in the splicing and the abrupt way each breaks from the one before to become an altogether different novella. The question this prompts is whether, in their differences, they add up to one coherent novel. Here I must apologise for a dereliction of the reviewer’s duty: it’s a question that has me stumped.
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism