Book Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free - Andrew Miller

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free - Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller's observation of historical detail has a way of immersing you in the ways, thoughts and details of the lives of the characters in the historical period of their setting, and he does it with such authenticity that you almost lose sight of the bigger picture. I found that true of his Costa Book Award winning novel Pure, set in the years preceding the French Revolution, where the work of an engineer to clear the putrefaction of the cemetery in the centre of Paris would hint at growing unrest in the city and the notion of 'purification' and more death to come.

Interestingly, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free takes place not long after the events in Pure, and the unrest that the Napoleonic forces have caused in Europe is seen - but not spoken about - by another figure peripheral to larger scale historical events. It's 1809 and Captain John Lacroix has just returned to his home in Somerset after a spell in the war in Europe. Nursed back to health by his housekeeper Nell, his physical recovery is slow, but he still struggles with what he has experienced in Spain. A former colleague in the English cavalry hopes to persuade him to return to the front, but Lecroix wants to get as far away from the war as possible. His brother-in-law who works in shipping gains him passage to Glasgow, from where Lacroix intends to travel further north.

There is a sense that in heading for the remotest barely inhabited isles of the Hebrides, Lacroix is not just running away from the war, or even from civilisation, but running away from himself. It doesn't take long for that to be established, as alternate chapters detail the journey of Corporal Calley from the British army and Lieutenant Medina of the Spanish army to find Lacroix and bring him to justice. A tribunal has heard Lacroix accused of wartime atrocities in the murder, rape and destruction of the village of Morales. Travelling to such a remote place, is Lacroix seeking to evade justice or just block out what has happened and evade the truth?

The testimony of the witnesses to the events in Morales might not give a whole picture of the truth, but Lacroix is certainly setting out to almost erase the past and erase himself. He even takes on a false name as he journies north, and there's a sense that he is looking to lose himself. He brings a fiddle with him, partly as an excuse to go learn old folk songs, but there is also is a sense that there may be an escape for him in music. He also takes a gun with him, which suggests that he may want to keep other options open. In the event, in an unfamiliar land and beset by some difficulties - and with Calley and Medina closing in on his trail - Lacroix has no option but to leave much of those choices down to fate or chance.

Looked at in the detail of the everyday circumstances and choices that Lacroix faces, immersed in the quality of Miller's writing and the detail of his descriptions, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The one you can't miss is the difference between the alternative chapters, each detailing two journeys in the same direction north, but in truth each of the journeys have two different inner trajectories, one seeing to get lost, the other seeking to find; both of them perhaps however running towards their fate.

There are other trajectories however in conflict or contrast with one another during this period, and certainly the war in Spain highlights the more obvious differences and conflicts on a grander political and social scale. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free however poses deeper questions relating to the individual struggling with the ways of the world and seeking spiritual advancement or truth. Without the reader even being entirely conscious of it or Miller really drawing special attention to it, Lacroix's experiences force him to reconsider questions of community, faith, religion, science and medicine, seeking a kind of purification again, seeking a new way of living. Whether Lacroix finds that is perhaps left open, but certainly some important matters are brought to a head and the detail, pacing and insight that Miller's writing contains holds you completely.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller is published by Sceptre on 23 August 2018

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