When you are asked to review books, a number of prompts are translated into numbers. For example, you are asked to award a mark out of ten for literary merit. I often cheat here. If I like a book, it gets nearer ten than one. After all, even the ingredients on the label of a brown sauce bottle have enough literary merit to get five.
Ingenious Pain gets a ten, because his sentences sing and you can get your teeth into them. His characters have a bit of swagger.
Listen to the pedlar Gummer selling coloured-water placebos to a cynical audience of eighteenth-century market women and men who’ve heard it all before, and are willing to throw rotten fruit or whatever shit comes to hand.
‘Pain, friends, is from the devil. It is his touch, his caress. His venomous embrace! Who has not heard a man in agony cry out and curse his God…Or a woman in childbed, blast the unborn infants ears with groans or shrieks…The loving parent is transformed into an ogre. The child by pain is parted from his prayers, the good man from his goodness. It is a hell on earth! It casts us upon the flame while yet we live…And doctors! We know how much they may do! We know how their ministrations can double our suffering…And then they rob us when we are too weak, too much out of our wits to boot them down the steps of our house. Death is a sweet release. Think now, I ask you, think of your greatest suffering, a day, a night when some raging pain in your teeth or bowels, in your skull, in your leg…a burn from the fire, a fall from your horse, or one of the thousand noxious diseases that rend us from within. Remember, how each and every one of you, in your torment would have exchanged your skin with the most wretched in the kingdom, just but you might have a minute, nay, a half-minute’s relief.’
Score out of ten: content/subject matter/themes.
Ten again. The book begins in 1772 in a little village in Cow, Devon. Reverend Lestrade allows gentlemen surgeons to perform an autopsy on his friend James Dyer. Dyer was born unable to feel pain. The surgeons hoped to extract blood, viscous fluid or locate in his body this soul-like substance.
Contemporary accounts of those born unable to feel pain show it not as a blessing but a curse. Children burn themselves, but since they feel no pain, injuries are worse than children that cry and weep. Bones are broken, but still they use those limbs. Children with that gift die younger than their contemporaries. It’s in the book’s title: ‘Ingenious’ pain.
The book asks other questions of readers. Can we, for example, be fully human when we feel no pain? The obverse of this, can we experience the bloom of pleasure?
I read, with pleasure, Robert Craven’s The Nine Books That Inspired Me To Write on my online gang hut— ABCtales. https://www.abctales.com/blog/robert-craven/nine-books-inspired-me-write-5-9-5-ingenious-pain-andrew-miller
At number 5, #5, Andrew Miller, and Ingenious Pain. (I also purchased, but still have to read Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski. https://www.abctales.com/blog/robert-craven/nine-books-inspired-me-write-9-9-9-imperium-ryszard-kapuscinski.)
Structure/plot/pacing (where applicable). Ten. Ingenious Pain is straightforward in its plotting, it moves in seven sections back through time from the autopsy in the barn to the epilogue, with the burial of James Dyer.
But there are also journeys of the soul. At its heart is the journey successful, but disgraced, surgeon James Dyer makes from his home in Bath to London. A race against time and other English doctors, to inoculate the Empress Catherine with the small pox virus in her St Petersburg palace with the promise of fame and riches (this is based on true events).
A mirroring of other journeys. Dyer being saved from the pedlar of lies, Gummer by a rich gentleman, who collects curiosities and freaks, he himself having a woman’s breasts. The gilded cage on the cover of the book offers a clue. Then there is Dyer’s time in Riga, entombed in a monastery by the weather. Where he meets his nemesis, ‘Mary’, who frees him from his curse, but offers no cure. Dyer in becoming more human, is no longer himself. His final journey finds him in Bedlam. Here he finds love, but he’s a curiosity of a different kind.
General Comments: Being picky, Reverend Lestrade’s sojourn in Paris before he met Dyer could have been cut—I found it a bit boring.
Enjoyment: ten. For a debut novel, for any novel, in general, it’s a marvel. Fully formed and wonderful to read. A real page-turner.