Reviewed by Judith Wilson
I’d been introduced to Andrew Miller’s writing via his richly evocative Costa Award-winning novel, Pure (2011), set in and around a cemetery in eighteenth century Paris. So I was curious to dive into The Crossing, his seventh novel, summed up by the publishers as ‘a hypnotic portrait of modern love’. In contrast to Pure, his new work is set firmly in the present, and opens in Bristol, Miller’s place of birth. We meet Maud, the book’s main protagonist, in the very first line: ‘Early spring, the new millennium, a young woman walks backwards along the deck of a boat.’ It’s highly significant that she is walking backwards. Throughout the book, impassive and self-contained Maud flouts convention; she also defies our attempts to fathom her.
The novel begins conventionally enough. Maud Stamp, a science research student, and Tim Rathbone, a guitar-playing ex-English student, first meet at the university sailing club; soon after, Maud has a dramatic accident, falling from the boat she’s mending. After Tim visits her in hospital, they quickly begin a liaison. The first 100 pages swiftly canter through their relationship: Maud gets a well-paid research associate job in Reading, they move in together, buy a boat. Maud gets pregnant and Tim, now tinkering at composing, becomes a house-husband. Their close union is in stark contrast to their respective families, from differing classes: Tim hails from a wealthy background, with a ‘money stream, those trusts,’ Maud’s parents are school teachers from Swindon. At first, we see everything through Tim’s eyes: a man who fiercely loves Maud, yet finds her frustratingly difficult to understand.
It won’t give too much away to say that we’re barely one third into the book when family tragedy strikes, and Maud, quite literally, begins to cast off from ordinary life. Everything changes: she leaves behind her humdrum home existence, with its children’s toys, her commute to work, her tired sex life with Tim, and sets out on a new adventure on Lodestar, their boat, purchased together, rarely shared. As she begins her voyage across the Atlantic, the dynamic of the book changes radically again, as Maud’s journey literally and figuratively takes on a new, unknowable turn.
Given the comparatively broad scope of time, it makes sense that the book is structured in five parts. The first two neatly deal with Maud’s ‘former’ life, the latter two her ‘voyage’. Within these, sections are short, some barely more than a numbered paragraph. Yet rather than interrupting the narrative flow, I felt the structure suited Miller’s needs, helping to move swiftly through time and maintain pace. For the most part, the focus remains relentlessly on Tim and Maud, but along the way, we meet an array of beautifully observed incidental characters, from Henderson, Maud’s sleazy work colleague, to Robert Currey, who helps her mend Lodestar.
Miller’s prose is exquisite, pared down and yet lush with detail. In particular, the passages in the latter half of the book, when Maud is at sea, are wonderfully lyrical with their descriptions of sky and water, stars and far-off lands. Yet firmly woven through the prose is a strong focus on practicalities; the book is rooted in specifics, especially those passages relating to the mechanics of the boat and the sailing. Everything is described in loving detail, from the fittings and equipment in the chandler’s to the specifics of rigging and navigation once Maud has set sail. I was completely drawn into her new world, believing she was capable of managing the boat alone.
And perhaps that is the crux of it. The Crossing, ultimately, is all about Maud. She’s a curious and complex character: sexually attractive to both men and women, unemotional and at times a little cold, a woman of few words, yet with an inner strength so much more interesting than Tim’s rather flaky persona. I didn’t especially warm to Maud, but she intrigued me, and I found her genuinely gutsy. And as she sets sail alone in Lodestar, I defy any reader not to wish in their hearts, even for a millisecond, that they too could take off and leave their everyday life behind, and experience a genuine ‘What if?’ moment.
The Crossing is very different from Pure; but equally engaging and engrossing. It retained my interest right to the rather unexpected final pages, although I was slightly frustrated by its open-ended conclusion. A lingering sense of uncertainty, of course, fits the character of Maud perfectly. But I wanted a more concrete tying up of loose ends. I wouldn’t describe The Crossing as a ‘hypnotic portrait of modern love.’ Rather, I interpreted it as an exploration of the intensities and vagaries of a human love relationship, and of how one unexpected, random tragedy can alter that relationship irretrievably and forever. Highly recommended.
Judith Wilson can be found on twitter as @judithwrites
Andrew Miller, The Crossing (Sceptre: Great Britain, 2015). 9781444753493, 336pp, hardback.