Introducing the silent narrator

Alex Clark reviews Andrew Miller’s The Crossing, where lurks the most enigmatic heroine

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

The Crossing Andrew Miller

Sceptre, pp.326, £18.99, ISBN: 9781444753493

Andrew Miller’s seventh novel, and the first since Pure, which won the Costa Book of the Year award, is an intensely curious affair; thick with material detail from the outset, it announces itself as a novel of closely observed and relished realism. But before too long, one begins to suspect that its specificity — much of it maritime, with excursions into other arcana such as rare guitars, or the pharmaceutical industry — is a blind, any literal reading liable to produce only bemusement.

A clue comes very early on, when graduate student Maud Stamp falls 20 feet from a dry-docked boat; to her shocked companion, Tim, she briefly appears to have become a corpse. Then she abruptly opens her eyes and gets to her feet, giving ‘the impression she is reassembling herself out of the bricks and flowers around her, rising out of her own dust’. It is an explosive opening, gripping and wrong-footing, but Maud’s powers of resurrection turn out to be her least unusual feature: more striking is her uncanny inwardness, her silences so prolonged that they last almost the entire novel. Not only does Maud barely speak to Tim, who pursues a relationship with her in the face of neither encouragement nor resistance, but she doesn’t speak to the reader, either.

Tim’s persistence is pretty to swallow, at least until the couple have a daughter and he becomes an enthusiastic househusband while Maud monitors trials into pain relief. There are various character sketches — Tim is the son of a larger-than-life posho family with comic top notes and violent undertones, while Maud’s parents are schoolteachers only mildly more communicative than she is, and whose most interesting attribute is that they own a laminating machine — but an air of unreality continues until the plot, jacknifed by tragedy, suddenly changes course completely. Its second half, much of which sees Maud alone at sea, involves both an awful lot of nautical vocabulary, with the accompanying sense of wading through a novelist’s research, and a more interesting feeling that the narrative might become completely untethered.

The Crossing is not an exploration of self-sufficiency in the vein of a novel such as Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, although it probes similar questions of what befalls a woman when she so overtly and resolutely swerves expected gender roles. It is an even bleaker depiction of individual withdrawal, which eventually achieves a kind of hallucinatory strangeness, simultaneously intriguing and disturbing.

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