The Crossing by Andrew Miller, book review

An inscrutable woman sets sail to flee personal tragedy
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The Independent Culture

Tim and maud meet at their university sailing club. She's quiet, self-contained, something of an enigma; one of those unknowable, mysterious women. Inked along her forearm is the phrase "sauve qui peut" – "every man for himself".

They move in together. Maud gets a job as a clinical researcher – working on trials of new opioid painkillers – while Tim is comfortably cushioned by a "cash mattress that ensures he can spend his days with his guitars, his yoga, his experimental cookery, his walks across the city, his not-yet-fully commenced life of serious composition."

Costa Award-winning Andrew Miller prefers punctuation to conjunctions. Lunch with Tim's moneyed family is "long, noisy", the food "delicious, clever". It makes for slightly unnerving syntax, but it is a tick not without its own grace.

Much of the pleasure of these early sections of The Crossing, Miller's seventh novel, comes from learning to keep step with the strange, sparse lull of the prose. What unfurls is a portrait of the couple's partnership seen from Tim's perspective that cleverly appears to be asking us to sympathise with him as he struggles to access Maud's interiority, but actually with every turn of the page, the reader becomes more and more intrigued by Maud herself.

Then, without warning, tragedy strikes, and the entire fabric of the novel is torn asunder. The narrative viewpoint spins on its axis as Tim disappears from the story and we're left alone with Maud, who quite literally sets out to sea.

Before we really know what's happening, the novel's turned into a re-make of J C Chandor's 2013 film All is Lost with Maud reprising Robert Redford's role. Given the setting and subject matter, this isn't completely without context, nevertheless I found myself scrambling to get my bearings.

As in the earlier sections, there's a beauty in the precision of Miller's writing, and everything from the swills and surges to the "routines" of survival are elegantly captured, but Maud, unfortunately, remains as elusive as ever. She's about as emotionally tuned in as a barnacle.

Miller has dipped his toes in this territory before – James Dyer, the surgeon unable to feel pain in his debut Ingenious Pain (and it's clearly no coincidence that in her professional life Maud is concerned with the medically-induced dulling of pain); and the emotionally stunted translator Alec in Oxygen. But despite his previous successes, it's a huge risk to write a central character (especially one you're then going to leave alone and adrift in the middle of the Atlantic for chapters on end) whose interior existence is such a gaping void.

It's unusual to read a novel of two such incongruent halves, especially when the first is so compelling in all its provincial ordinariness, with the second so problematic in all its exotic adventure. By the end, there are more than faint echoes of Waugh's A Handful of Dust. I found myself wishing Miller had stayed closer to the novel I'd been reminded of initially, Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife, a gripping account of a husband wrestling with an unfathomable partner, as ultimately, once Tim abandons ship the narrative flounders.