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Is it possible to judge a book by its title? When I came across Ingenious Pain I thought I could certainly make a case for it. Since reading the book I'm sure I could argue the point. It's unusual for me to start a review with recommendations, but this is one novel that completely rocked my conceptions of what makes an outstanding book.
Taking the word 'Pain", it's a noun that describes a physical property. In Roget's Thesaurus it also gives the words; bodily pain, physical pain, discomfort, distress, thin time and hell.
Ingenious is primarily an adjective with numerous meanings. In brief, skill, handy, slick, neat, clever, or: - cunning, cruelty, subtle, sly, chicanery.
Quite a mixture for a title and one that could stall a book reading group discussion.
The novel is about a man called James Dyer, born into a farming family in the middle of the 18th century. From the first the boy is abnormally quiet. His mother soon discovers her baby cannot feel any pain either. Such a child would have a short lifespan in the days of virtually no medical enlightenment, but James proves to be a fast healer as well as a determined and clever child. He eventually speaks, but it isn't long before his entire family is decimated by Smallpox, then a disease that was fatal in most cases. Leaving behind him one blinded sister, he falls in with a character called Gummer, who mercilessly exploits James's nature by having him feign pain and then miraculously 'recover' on drinking a noxious brew.
On escaping Gummer's hands, James falls in with another charlatan, but one in the guise of a gentleman. It is here in the company of other 'freaks' of nature that James discovers some feeling of the mind, though lack of physical pain would seen to make him immune to internal pain. He also discovers a cleverness of intellect and a leaning towards medical matters.
So begins James's adventures where he becomes a sailor at barely 14 years old, assisting the ship's surgeon in the heat of battle. Gaining friendship and his medical papers, he sets up in medical practice at 20 and soon becomes a respected surgeon.
When the Empress Catherine of Russia asks for an English doctor to inoculate her against Smallpox, James becomes one of the doctors racing to Russia to become the favorite. It's in Russia that he meets Mary, a witch, angel or a simple peasant? Mary will become his savior or nemesis.
I have tried to keep the story outline brief as this is better read with an eye to putting everything else aside for the weekend. I read it in just under two days, but I'm a fast reader. I also go back and re-read passages that reveal hidden truths. There are numerous such moments in this book and several parts that are worth reading again for atmosphere. This is one thing that Miller is excellent at. Although the first of his books, he's made a name for himself since his debut with a reputation for outstanding description of the age and characters.
In this novel he brings to life all the seedy, unglamorous side of 18th century England, when life was both cheap and brief. The language is vulgar at times, earthy, witty and totally believable. I found myself immured in the experience of the age. The reader sees characters spring to life with all the panache of Dickens at his best, but a rowdier, more primitive chronicler.
The medical descriptions are enough to make the strongest heart quail, while blood and guts positively spill across the pages with a slice of the scalpel. Male or female, the characters are ruthless in their actions; bawdy, unfeeling, sodden with drunken oaths they are a counterpoint to Dyer's cold, reptilian character. One would think him restrained, but for his later actions. It's these actions and what becomes of them that is impossible to comment on without giving more of the plot away.
There is a strong suggestion at the beginning of the book that the character of Dyer will reverse and start to find some feeling. The narrative starts at the end of his life, rather than the beginning, so it's safe to say that misfortune has changed him, but how far has that character changed and has feeling pain anything to do with feeling love and simple human kindness. One would think from early actions that without physical pain there could be no deeper mental or spiritual feeling. Such lies at the heart of much of the book.
However, this is no tale of morals or questioning of faith. Indeed, one of James's early and later friends is the Reverend Lestrade, a man whose faith is constantly under question, allowing him much debauchery.
This is an excellent book whether you want an unusual read, something to make you consider or just to rouse your senses. It's one of the most original I can recall reading and I've done a lot of reading.
Fiercely inventive, unsettling, sad at times, I loved it and wish I could give it more than five stars.
You can buy this on Amazon for 6.32 or 2nd hand from 1p, although I bought mine in a charity shop for 1.50.