Old Carriage Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

By Andrew Miller, Sceptre, 432 pages, £18.99

North Somerset, a moonless night in early 1809. A carriage with a half-dead soldier inside is struggling “through lanes crazy with rain, its sides slabbed with mud, its wheels throwing arcs of mud behind it”.

By the end of the opening sentence of Andrew Miller’s new novel, we’re already knee-deep in fictional territory he has made his own. It’s not just the sheer muddiness of the mud — almost a character in its own right in his 2011 Pure, the story of the excavation of an overflowing cemetery in pre-Revolutionary Paris. It’s the way in which, even when his plots are briskly ticking along, there’s no thinning out of sensory texture. A room is “scented with the soft smell of itself — wood, old fabrics, the coal-breath of the fireplace”. John Lacroix, the soldier who recovers to become the novel’s central character, feels “time slipping like honey through muslin” as he stares out to sea from the deck of the merchant brig on which he’s escaping incognito from Bristol to Glasgow.

Lacroix is a naive young officer and traumatised casualty of the Peninsular War, from which survivors have been shipped home and dumped in Portsmouth, “some without eyes or legs”. Threatened with recall to his regiment, Lacroix decamps to Scotland with his cavalry pistol and his father’s old violin, part desperate deserter, part Romantic traveller, in quest of Gaelic folk songs and a Wordsworthian freedom to dream and roam. At this point, Miller launches a parallel plotline. Charged with leading a ragtag band of stragglers on the retreat to Corunna, Lacroix was unable to prevent them torching a Spanish village, raping its women and murdering its men. While he suppresses the memory of the atrocity, the Spanish authorities demand retribution. A two-man hit squad is dispatched to hunt him down — Medina, a well-bred Spanish officer, and Calley, a streetwise corporal who served with Lacroix and is prepared to gouge eyes in the cause of self-preservation. When we learn that he was a foundling sold into slavery in a cotton mill, his dogged thuggery feels easier to comprehend than the gentle but finally inscrutable Lacroix.

'Now we shall be entirely free' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Backstory atrocities have featured in Miller’s earlier novels. The Optimists opens with the photographer Clem Glass in a state of post-traumatic disorientation not unlike Lacroix’s, after witnessing a massacre in an African church. The engineer in Pure arrives in a city where a man can be publicly dismembered for accidentally scratching the king. These intimations of endemic human brutality form a disturbing groundswell to the characters’ personal odysseys.

Lacroix’s travels unfold in picaresque episodes that could each be a novel in themselves. Yet the book is fast-paced, building to its denouement as the island-hopping hit-men close in. There are echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, though Miller’s Hebridean manhunt doesn’t reach the same pitch of tension. This is because, until late in the day, Lacroix is unaware of the assassins on his tail.

Eventually, he washes up on a remote island where the batty idealist Cornelius Frend and his two sisters have set up a Romantic commune. You’d expect to find Shelley dropping in, penning an ode to the ear of a peat-bog man Cornelius has unearthed. Free-loving Jane is pregnant, while Emily, with whom Lacroix rather predictably falls in love, is going blind from glaucoma. He accompanies her to Glasgow, where she undergoes pioneering surgery, performed without anaesthetic by a Swiss ophthalmologist named Rizzo, another of Miller’s wonderfully presenceful minor characters.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free reads like the third book in a loose trilogy. As in Pure and Casanova (1998), Miller returns to archetypal themes of the decades around 1800 — the seismic social dislocations, the tideline where enlightenment and superstition meet, the flintlock cartridges and vials of laudanum. He’s done his research, for sure.

But beyond the period props, Miller has an extraordinary gift for conjuring actuality from the past, like the taut yet expansive musical silence after Lacroix, persuaded by the Frends to play his violin, “lifted his bow from the strings... before the weight of ‘what next’ came in”.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019