The Nine Books that inspired me to write (5 of 9) #5_ Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller
Posted by Robert Craven on Thu, 19 Aug 2021
Ingenious Pain (1997)
My father died on the 28th of January 1998. No matter what age you are, the death of a parent is a hammer blow; the first crack in the secure pillars of life. Also, not long after, I went through a painful break up.
I needed to just get away.
I tallied up that I had nearly 30 days leave to use and looked around for a package. By sheer chance, passing a travel agent along Dublin's quays, I saw a three city rail journey from Toronto, Quebec and Montreal. Without even thinking it out, I booked it. There wasn't a direct flight out of Dublin, so included in the package was the connecting flight to London Heathrow and then the five hour flight to Toronto.
At Heathrow, there was a three hour wait for the flight to board, (according to my pocket journal, the number 3 kept happening) so I browsed the shelves of WH Smith and came upon Ingenious Pain. The cover was white with an embossed image of a bird cage. On the back, below the blurb I read it had won the IMPAC Dublin literary award for that year. It is the next book on my list of the 9 books that inspired me to write
I purchased it, thinking when I had finished it, it was lean enough to stow away in my suitcase and I'd pick up another read in Canada. Finding a seat with a sandwich and tea (I didn't drink coffee then), I settled in more to skim than to read, with one eye on the departure gate and an ear cocked for the boarding call. I was hooked on the opening chapter.
Andrew Miller creates two truly memorable characters; James Dyer and the 'chancer' and charlatan, Marley Gummer, as much master and apprentice in the age of enlightenment. The book explores through Dyer the cult of celebrity at being a surgeon in that century. I had finished the book by the time I touched down in Toronto.
It is in may ways a perfect book as a travelling companion, It has a majestic sweep to it; moving the story from England to the vast steppes of Russia and enlisting into the navy as a surgeon, James Dyer's life unfolds. Dyer has a neurological disorder that prevents him from feeling pain. He is also disassociating, unable to feel empathy, yet has occasional flashes of emotion. Like le Carre, Miller masters unreliable narrative, Dyer is the subject of letters, the notes from his autopsy, the dispatches from the navy. From many sides of this prism do we get a sense of the character.
I still have this copy on my bookshelf. It is a treasured copy. I read it cover-to-cover in Toronto, in Quebec, I re-read the passage of Dyer's journey across Russia. Discovering too, that I suffer dreadful jet-lag, I read it again on a bus journey along the Trans Canada Highway when I missed my call at Quebec rail station to Montreal. I had it stuffed into a pocket on the voyage along the St Lawrence River out to the whale watching.
It is a battered snapshot of an amazing 3 weeks
And there's the number 3 again. When plotting A KIND OF DROWNING, I wanted a deeply unsympathetic protagonist in the form of Pius John Crowe, a disgraced detective suspended from duty, Three is his lucky number and I run this as a motif throughout the book. Leafing back through the journal I kept as well as Ingenious Pain, it was one of the 'road signs' I kept to hand when drafting the book.
if you haven't read Ingenious Pain, you should. Its nearly thirty years old and with every read, reveals a new truth without feeling staid.