The fantastic voyage of a haunted woman.
In the opening scene of Miller’s (Pure, 2012, etc.) graceful, absorbing novel, Maud Stamp and Tim Rathbone, members of their university’s sailing club, are at work repairing a boat when suddenly Maud falls 20 feet onto “rubbled brick” and, although at first she appears dead, opens her eyes, gets up, and walks 15 steps before collapsing. Tim—“tall, blue-eyed, patrician”—shocked that she is alive, rushes her to a hospital and, in short order, becomes her lover. He's fascinated by this self-possessed woman who lives in Spartan rooms, who “does not do banter,” who (like Miller’s protagonist in 1997's Ingenious Pain) seems not to suffer, or even to feel, pain, and who has on her forearm a tattoo, Sauve Qui Peut: every man for himself. The lovers seem complete opposites: after earning a degree in biology, Maud takes a position at a pharmaceutical company, assigned, ironically, to oversee trials of a powerful painkiller. Tim, born into wealth and privilege—Miller delightedly skewers his family’s pretensions and hypocrisies—occupies himself by playing one of his precious collectible guitars; after their daughter is born, he happily becomes a stay-at-home dad. But Tim feels increasingly frustrated with Maud’s coldness, her apparent distance from him and their child. Who is this woman, he wonders, who “entered his life with the force of myth”? Maud is, indeed, a cipher: is she a stereotypical scientist, focused on chemical rather than human interactions? Does she have Asperger’s? Or is she hiding some deep, unspeakable grief, a more likely possibility that emerges in the second half of the novel, when she flees from a devastating tragedy to sail across the Atlantic, alone. In palpable detail, Miller depicts Maud’s immersion in a watery, ravaging world, at once alien and threatening. There is something Shakespearean in her journey: in her battle against nature’s wrath; the dreamlike settlement, inhabited by children, where she washes ashore; and her overwhelming desire to confront the unbearable.
In pristine, elegant prose, Miller creates an indelible portrait of a mysterious woman and her tragic quest.