Award-winning writer, poet, journalist and Arts correspondent Philip Miller turns his attention to fiction in his debut novel, the dark and multi-layered The Blue Horse, which is rich in mystery, intrigue and gripping characterisation. The narrative tools with which Miller is equipped allow him to construct an essentially straightforward plot, though one which is in no way predictable.
The Blue Horse follows art historian and curator George Newhouse as he looks to move on from his wife’s death and begin a new life in Edinburgh as curator of the Public Galleries. Simultaneously, Newhouse’s time is spent searching for Pieter Van Doelenstraat’s missing masterpiece The Blue Horse. Against this backdrop, the novel explores the roots of Newhouse’s broken and tormented persona and the reasons for his wife Ruth’s death.
It is noticeable from early on in the novel that Miller adopts a very straightforward way of writing by using short sentences, with very little imagery or elaborate description: “Newhouse was in his new office. It was 9am. He had not slept in his flat”. This works quite well for the purposes of The Blue Horse, as the settings and actions are delivered in a very direct and factual manner, which allows the reader to construct their own image, such as in the description: “It was a large, old industrial building near the docks. Music was pulsing inside…He heard laughter, felt a strangeness and decided against going in”.
Miller’s writing style evolves sufficiently as the plot progresses, and the reader realises that the writing in this piece of work is not one dimensional. This development is most apparent in the chapters which tell us of George Newhouse’s past life with his wife. There is a strong sense of duality in Miller’s writing- which is also projected on to Newhouse’s character. The tone and word choice in these chapters tend to be lighter and more optimistic, as opposed to that of the main plot which is far grimmer and more unsettling. For example, the dark and light contrasts between: “Light dimmed in the window. The room went dark. He curled up in bed…he was alone” and “Light fingers on his skin, on his neck…Their bodies were warm and touching, warm and breathing together”.
Miller does a fine job of teasing the reader with information about Newhouse’s past. This is achieved most effectively through various chapters of analepsis sandwiched between chapters of the main plot. These moments offer insight into Newhouse’s relationship with his wife Ruth, suggesting that things perhaps began to turn sour in the latter part of their relationship. As these suggestions accumulate, the reader begins to see how Miller makes the relationship between the couple realistic and believable.
One of the most difficult things to look past in the novel is the way in which speech is denoted. Nothing is used to differentiate speech from thoughts, or actions, or a new speaker, which makes for quite a confusing read at times. Perhaps this is to convey the way in which “lines between reality, imagination and the supernatural blur”. I feel that this style is not the most effective because it interrupts the flow of the narrative due to the need to re-read certain parts in order to grasp what’s happening or being said. Ultimately Miller’s writing suffers from too much of a good thing. The mystery and teasing which is so effective throughout the novel is rather unresolved and confusing. The ending seems to come at a rushed pace which could have been avoided by adding another chapter or two to develop the denouement further.
Overall, The Blue Horse displays Philip Miller’s excellent ability to tell a dark and sinister story with a writing style which is multi-dimensional and a protagonist drawn with depth and realism. The novel is filled with intriguing parallels between its main and sub plots which make for an exciting and very worthwhile read.
Hamzah M. Hussain
Ed – The Blue Horse is released 9 March.