A soldier’s relentless race from the inescapability of fate
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