by Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller has created a singular life, which the reader follows in a circle, beginning with his death. James Dyer is an unwanted and shameful child, the consequence of a rape. This silent, watchful infant grows, witnessing the grim world of poverty, obscurity and disease all around him. He appears terrifyingly different from his family, as if he was born with no soul, the full implications of which become clear as the story unfolds. In a sense, Dyer's life's journey is about finding his soul and identifying the characteristics of a human being.
Abandoned by his family and shunned by his community, ill fortune forces him into the hands of abusers who cruelly exploit his unnatural acquiescence and complete lack of response, or tolerance to pain. His repeated torture at their hands marks his character and he is as a result both a freak and psychologically flawed, which amounts to a lack of humanity. Now his destiny unfolds, he is a man marked out for an extraordinary path. His 'talents' can be seen as both blessing and curse, enabling him, through the huge curiosity he generates, to survive but also never to feel the warmth of humanity or fully join the human race. He is forever an outsider and a harsh critic of the crude and bestial lives around him.
In his chequered career Dyer goes to sea, becomes a doctor and fetches up in the house of curiosities belonging to the philanthropist and collector Mr. Canning. Here life is truly stranger than strange - a looking glass world where the inhabitants are kept in an artificial world and we suspect Mr. Canning's motive in treating them as subjects for cruel experiments. Miller's descriptions of the dreamlike existence in Canning's beautiful mansion are quite breathtaking.
Dyer makes a trip across the snow to Russia and this magical journey promises to make his fortune as a doctor, but as in every aspect of Dyer's life, he is thwarted by misadventure and bad fortune and his descent into insanity in the frozen wasteland comes as no surprise.
Dyer achieves great fame and acclaim as a skilled physician and surgeon, whose speed with the knife is legendary. He is described as having no empathy with the patient, and is like a machine for cutting, an automaton. Dyer also performs mercury cures and inoculations as well as general surgery, and paves the way, becoming a man-midwife. He has exactly the right qualities one needs to be a surgeon: hard, headstrong, ambitious and hugely efficient. Here, one senses that Dyer's day and ours may have something in common. However he courts scandal and is forced out of the community and to continue his restless wanderings.
The context for Dyer's life is hugely important. This is the eighteenth century, the thick of the Enlightenment, when man radically transformed the view of himself, in relation to his place in the universal order, and to God through intellectual, philosophical, religious and scientific thought. It is significant that Miller chooses to portray Dyer's fascination (from boyhood) with scientific equipment. His most treasured (and often only) possession is an orrery - a scientific working model of the universe. Miller evokes the scientific world of painter Joseph Wright of Derby, re-creating the tableau depicted in 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' (1768) and alluding to another of Wright's candlelight scientific paintings 'A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery in Which a Lamp is Put in Place of the Sun' (1766) This hothouse, discursive world is the perfect milieu for a man with no soul.
Ingenious pain shows a brutal and abusive world, harsh in its toleration of aberration but endlessly fascinated by the human condition and the significance it achieved in the Enlightenment. The reader cannot help but feel revulsion at the stark cruelties, but also pleasure in the beauty - language and imagery. Andrew Miller has created an astonishing, multi-layered novel, which is reminiscent of Perfume by Patrick Suskind, but suggestive of something much darker and more disturbing that lies beneath the surface of human lives.
Read our interview with Andrew Miller.