A sol­dier’s re­lent­less race from the in­escapa­bil­ity of fate

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - EILIS O’HAN­LON

Scep­tre, hard­back, 422 pages, €19.99

One win­ter’s night in the early years of the 19th cen­tury, an English sol­dier is brought back home, un­con­scious and griev­ously wounded af­ter fight­ing against Napoleonic troops in Spain dur­ing the Penin­su­lar War.

Cap­tain John Lacroix is nursed back to health, but mys­tery hangs over what re­ally hap­pened dur­ing the un­ruly re­treat by Bri­tish troops, when the tiny vil­lage of Los Mo­rales was sacked, the men shot or hanged, the women “out­raged”. Phys­i­cally, Lacroix im­proves, but in bed stares up at the ceil­ing “long­ing for his own boy­hood un­til the long­ing shamed him”.

Be­fore long, he’s on the move again, es­cap­ing an or­der to re­turn to his reg­i­ment, but Lacroix is be­ing pur­sued across coun­try by Cor­po­ral Cal­ley, an English in­fantry­man, ac­com­pa­nied by a Span­ish cavalry of­fi­cer called Medina who served in his home coun­try as a li­ai­son of­fi­cer with the Bri­tish forces.

He adopts the name of Lo­vall from a fel­low of­fi­cer, who’d suc­cumbed to fever in the war — “sick one day, worse the next, dead the third.” What do his ad­ver­saries want with Lacroix aka Lo­vall?

The an­swer comes about a fifth of the way into this new novel by Im­pac-win­ning An­drew Miller. Rather than why, the nar­ra­tive con­cerns it­self with that most ba­sic sto­ry­telling im­pulse: what will hap­pen next?

Cor­po­ral Cal­ley is as re­lent­less and ter­ri­fy­ing as Chig­urh in Cor­mac McCarthy’s No Coun­try for Old Men. Once given a rea­son to en­act ret­ri­bu­tion on the quiet, un­re­mark­able Lacroix, noth­ing stands in his way. His com­pan­ion di­vines in him “a fever­ish in­sis­tence that seemed to Medina not eas­ily told apart from de­spair”.

What makes it more dis­qui­et­ing is that Cal­ley’s mis­sion has no mo­ral un­der­pin­ning what­so­ever. There had been plenty of mas­sacres dur­ing the dis­as­trous Penin­su­lar War. Why sin­gle out this one, not least when the dis­heart­ened Lacroix’s sin was one of omis­sion rather than com­mis­sion? The as­sign­ment to avenge what hap­pened at Los Mo­rales is driven in­stead by a po­lit­i­cal bar­gain be­tween the English and Span­ish regimes. Now We Shall Be En­tirely Free be­comes there­fore a med­i­ta­tion on the cyn­i­cal, bru­tal mean­ing­less of war, a sub­ject that Miller has tack­led be­fore, most no­tably in his fourth novel, 2005’s The Op­ti­mists, which also con­cerned it­self with the af­ter­math of a mas­sacre, in an un­named African coun­try with sim­i­lar­i­ties to Rwanda.

That theme has even more con­tem­po­rary ur­gency a decade on, and Miller is im­pla­ca­ble in fol­low­ing it through to its nat­u­ral con­clu­sion. In the He­brides, Lacroix finds love with Emily, who’s go­ing blind, and in do­ing so, finds that “his se­crets had al­tered in the keep­ing, had grown like living things, so that he did not quite know them any more.” In the end, he has to tell her he’s not re­ally called Lo­vall, and why he needs to hide his true iden­tity, but even the truth is not enough to save them from Cal­ley, who’s right be­hind them ev­ery step. Split nar­ra­tives can be tricky; in­vari­ably, one sto­ry­line is more in­volv­ing than the other.

Here, the ten­sion is so finely bal­anced be­tween hunter and hunted that the al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters ul­ti­mately form one beau­ti­fully in­te­grated whole, whilst the his­tor­i­cal set­ting is per­fectly re­alised in a way that isn’t al­ways the case with his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. The par­tic­u­lars of time and place never wa­ver, with­out beat­ing one on the head with clumsy, in­tru­sive de­tail. There’s one cu­ri­ous er­ror, when mem­bers of the non-con­form­ist com­mu­nity in Scot­land to which Emily be­longs are de­scribed as dis­cussing the po­etry of John Clare, whose first col­lec­tion wasn’t pub­lished un­til a decade af­ter the events of this novel are set; but it would be fool­ish to al­low a small slip spoil an oth­er­wise fault­less piece of lit­er­ary recla­ma­tion.

The book starts too slowly. Some readers may, un­der­stand­ably, be­come im­pa­tient. Whilst strik­ingly orig­i­nal, the story also lags in places. Miller, though, is such an el­e­gant stylist that it’s easy to for­give the oc­ca­sional longueur. His de­scrip­tions of the Hebridean land­scape as his char­ac­ters move from is­land to is­land are like prose po­ems: “The mind of a horse up here. The mind of a per­son. How much sky can one life bear?”

Hang­ing over every­thing is a dread­ful fore­bod­ing of the in­escapa­bil­ity of fate. The only com­fort is in ac­cep­tance. Far from home, at peace with him­self, Medina wants to aban­don their quest, but comes to re­alise that he can never shake off Cor­po­ral Cal­ley, any more than Lacroix can. In the fi­nal pages, the mean­ing of An­drew Miller’s ti­tle be­comes poignantly ap­par­ent. It makes for a pro­found end to a mag­nif­i­cent novel.

Miller: El­e­gant stylist

FIC­TION Now We Shall Be En­tirely FreeAn­drew Miller

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