Andrew Miller set himself an enormous challenge in having as his central character, Maud, a young woman who appears at first to have no inner life at all. She shows no curiosity about others, treats conversation as a kind of polite game, and maddens those who are attracted to her, like her partner Tim, by her cool unreachability. Asked in an interview what she’d be if she were a drink, she replies, “Water.” (As always with Maud, there’s more to that than meets the eye). Miller specialises in the black box of the human emotions and in characters who live on the fringe of what we take for normal behaviour. In Ingenious Pain his main character was born without the capacity to feel pain; in Oxygen a central character is writing a play about miners trapped in a mine with their air supply steadily running out. Maud is another of these not-quite-human presences: the first time we see her she miraculously survives a fall from the deck of a yacht, a fall that should have killed her, a fall that is described in terms that make you think of angels:
…there is a movement through the air, a blink of feathered shadow, that is also a movement across the surface of his eye like a thorn scratch. There must have been a noise too – no such thing as silent impact – but whatever it was, it was lost in the hissing of his own blood and left no trace of itself.
… Maud herself is further off, face up, her arms flung above her head, her head tilted to the side, her eyes shut. It takes an immense effort to keep looking at her, this girl newly dead on the rubbled brick, one shoe on, one shoe off. He is very afraid of her. (5-6)
Maud does survive the fall and goes on to have a relationship with Tim, a career as a scientist (researching pain-killers) and a child, Zoe. But she continues to be an unsettling enigma in the lives of everyone: Tim constantly strives for emotional response from her: What has he found? Who has he found? Is this a wise love? (27); Tim’s family is critical of her unmaternal attitude to her daughter; she is the odd-one-out in the cosy middle-England group of friends (white, university-educated, and with money in the bank) that she and Tim accumulate in their three-bedroom semi-detached cottage, paid for by Tim’s wealthy family. She’s like a rare animal that everyone notices, from whom everyone hopes for a sign of favour or a moment of connection, but who remains apart, with that same rooted calm, that same uncanny stillness….A switching off or a switching in She’s a benevolent but absent-minded observer in Zoe’s life. She gets into the habit of going out alone on their yacht Lodestar, which she and Tim have bought (Tim’s share paid by his mother) and restored before Zoe’s birth.
But we always know that something’s got to give, and it does. The book plumbs enormous emotional depths, and we come to share Maud’s inner world, a world of acute sensibility to the now, to the visceral experience of emotion rather than to its left-brain lucidity. It’s Miller’s particular achievement to make us see how narrow and hackneyed our judgment of human emotion is. We should, if we reflect just for a moment, realise just how little we know about ourselves, just how much deep dark water there is beneath the surface of our emotions. Water, of course, sailing, and storms are the guiding metaphors of the book: Maud sets out alone in Lodestar with no idea where she might end up and no idea if she’ll even survive, and efficient sailor as she is, she very nearly dies in a ferocious storm. At that point the book takes a very surprising turn, about which I’m still not sure. But Miller is the kind of writer you’re prepared to hand yourself over to lock, stock and barrel, master of all registers:
The boat’s shadow like black silk hauled just beneath the water’s surface…
There are tears on his cheeks as thick as varnish. He has given way to something, or something has given way inside him
For several minutes the women pair off and Mrs Rathbone speaks to Mrs Stamp like the prime minister’s wife to the consort of an African president, a prime minister’s wife who has started the day with some Qi Gong exercises and then a few drinks, or one particularly strong one
[she] looks back to see a wave bigger than any she has ever seen, a grey wall with a grey crest tumbling down its face like masonry, the whole thing apparently at right angles to the wind. She turns from it, flings her arms around the boom, locks her hands to her wrists. Three seconds later it comes aboard (this thing that carries its own, unanswerable truth), smashes the air from her lungs, breaks her grip, lifts her, accelerates her, whips her against the wires of the starboard shroud and flings her into the sea.
Always interesting, always rewarding, an unusually gifted, original and daring writer. Very highly recommended.