Jon's Reviews > Ingenious Pain

Ingenious Pain by Andrew  Miller
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's review
Jul 06, 2011

liked it

Not exactly a title that says "pick me up and buy me," but nevertheless a very richly detailed novel set in 18th century England, one that really made me feel what it must have been like to be alive then. Too many beautifully worded descriptions to repeat here, but here's one on a new-born calf: "A glorious sight! The cow's expanse of tongue licking the calf, and the calf itself, trembling, delicately stunned by its passage into the air." The story is about a man who is born without the ability to feel pain, and who has absolutely no empathy for others. He is extremely intelligent. As a young boy he leaves what is left of his family after a smallpox epidemic, becomes a side-show freak, then part of a collection of freaks assembled by an important scientist, then a ship's surgeon in the navy, then a highly successful doctor, and finally a madman and a tramp, after meeting a mysterious "gypsy" woman who somehow makes him like everyone else. The book opens with a grotesque autopsy on his corpse; the rest is back-story. Some very sympathetically drawn characters, but I never really got where the story was going or understood why it was written in the first place. There were some solecisms--using "lie" instead of "lay" (the reverse of the usual mistake) and "sit" instead of "set." Miller also used "discomforted" when I'm almost certain he meant "discomfited." On the other hand, thanks to his (to me) odd usage, I looked up "pragmatic" in Johnson's dictionary and found that in the 18th century it meant "meddling, busy in other peoples' business without leave." Hard to imagine that in only 75 years it developed its present meaning. But Miller's sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, always rich descriptions never added up to a whole for me.
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