Discovering Andrew Miller’s work, at this stage of his career, reminds me of the solid sense of anticipation that I felt upon reading Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy (2013). As authors of 8 and 11 novels respectively, I’m surprised that I hadn’t been tempted to read one of their books until a publisher pressed a copy of one in my hands.
(And this is why I am grateful for a handful of good readers working as publicists who are dedicated to making solid matches between readers and writers, who know my taste and send selected titles, very occasionally and very deliberately, and always with a personal note.)
The remarkable thing about this novel is how deeply I fell into the story. Even without – for a good while – a particular connection to a single character. As though my connection was to the world, rather than to the narrative.
Miller’s prose is lyrical. Time slips “like honey through muslin” and many people “have an edge of lunacy to them, like fat on a cutlet”. There is a “shining wire of a stream in the crease of the valley” and music’s “echo ebbed away towards the whispered beating of the sea, as if for safe keeping”.
His use of description is not only poetic, however; it also bolsters the atmosphere. So in one moment, we see a “mercury-coloured sea that now and then slopped over the gunwales to swirl, bubbling, around their boots”. And, in another, he “lifted her hand to the honeysuckle, to the silk edges of tulips, to cornflowers whose colour she would not allow to be simply ‘blue’”. (My favourite, though less vibrant, is of the room “scented with the soft smell of itself – wood, old fabrics, the coal-breath of the fireplace”.)
Thinking back on the story, there are several characters who move on and off the stage of the novel, who appear to have been fully attended to as individuals. It’s easy to imagine thick folders of character-work, notes and images and backstory, for a woman who tends to the house, for a sister, for a trickster. This community of characters is where the power rests for me, but ultimately one relationship does take root in the narrative and it takes on a new focus.
“He did not dare to question what he was doing, Start to question it and he might find himself gazing through a tear in the skin of the world. There was no other plan. He shut his eyes, opened them. He started up at the blue shadow of the ceiling, longing for his own boyhood until the longing shamed him.”
Andrew Miller peers through this tear in the skin of the world and then widens the gap so that we, too, can see what’s inside. This is not complicated and layered storytelling, but it is a complex and fully developed world, one which I wholly enjoyed inhabiting for a spell.