Thursday 23 November 2017

Books: Sympathy for a woman with a cold heart

Fiction: The Crossing, Andrew Miller, Sceptre, hdbk, 336 pages, €28.50

Ambitious: Andrew Miller is incapable of writing an ugly sentence
Ambitious: Andrew Miller is incapable of writing an ugly sentence
The Crossing
Eilish O'Hanlon

Eilish O'Hanlon

Andrew Miller's first book was translated into 34 languages, and, uniquely for a debut novel, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Ingenious Pain was a hard act to follow, but what always helped Miller stand out was that he is so hard to typecast, with settings that range from pre-revolutionary France and wartime Tokyo to modern day Africa.

This, his seventh novel, is a new departure again. It starts out as a contemporary love story, involving Tim and Maud, who meet at a university sailing club, move in together, have a baby.

Tim comes from the sort of family who can buy their offspring a house on the Dorset-Wiltshire border and not worry too much about when or if they're repaid. The first hundred pages are a sketch of genteel middle-class mores of a sort that British novelists have been quietly producing for years. In this case, tragedy strikes. The middle section of the book shifts focus to Maud, a woman regarded by friends and work colleagues, and certainly by Tim's family, as unlikeable, a cold fish, lacking in the normal responses of a wife and mother.

By the end, Maud has sailed away from England, taking a strange journey across the Atlantic, encountering storms and danger, to a remote area of rainforest, where she finds a community of abandoned children. Scenes reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust are an indication of how far she, and the reader, has come. Back home, she was the oddity, not fitting in. By the end, it is they who seem ghostly, ethereal, unimportant, and Maud who is sputtering belatedly into life.

Like Tim and Maud, the two halves of the book don't fit entirely comfortably together, and those final chapters lack the authenticity to make the mythic undertones wholly convincing. There's also a little too much boat talk along the way ("she disengages the Hydrovane and takes the tiller… for a long time she tries to figure out how to jury-rig a sail" - well, haven't we all?)

Miller, though, writes with such limpid grace and simplicity that it carries one along, symbolically enough, in its wake. Hydrovanes notwithstanding, he is incapable of writing an ugly sentence.

The novel is admirably ambitious in scope, but ultimately works best as a study of a woman, semi-detached from the world, who suffers because most of those she encounters judge her too harshly for it instead of accepting her for what she is. Ingenious Pain was about a man incapable of feeling pleasure or pain; The Crossing is about a woman who seems, at first glance, incapable of feeling anything. It makes the deep sympathy the author manages to evoke for her all the more remarkable.

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