An unsettling and unusual piece of historical fiction. Andrew Miller went on to win the Costa Best Novel Award for his sixth novel, Pure, and his early promise shows well in this poetical and beautifully written debut.
We follow the fortunes of James Dyer, born without the capacity to feel either physical pain or emotions. He is kidnapped by a man who seeks to use his unusual abilities to help sell a quack remedy for pain around touring fairs- but this will be only the first of many reversals to his fortune that he suffers. We will follow him as he becomes known for his skills as a doctor and his subsequent journey to Russia to inoculate Empress Catherine.
Later in the book, things take on a decidedly mystical air, which we are asked to take on trust. Nothing is explained or justified- magical and curious things just happen. Perhaps this reflects the nature of the times the book is set in? It is a book which lingers in the mind after closing the final chapter- mostly for the extreme beauty of the writing.