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Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

By Andrew Miller, Sceptre, 432 pages, £18.99

 

It’s a wonder Andrew Miller is not a household name. Now 58, he has been publishing confident, controlled fiction for more than 20 years; whether he alights on 18th-century Paris or 1990s Los Angeles, his novels are always suffused with wit, grit and melancholy wisdom. He’s the kind of novelist other writers admire and readers mean to get around to, who makes it on to Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime but rarely the bestseller charts. Perhaps his excellent eighth book, a cat-and-mouse thriller set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, will change that, though the fact it’s not made this year’s Man Booker longlist is already something of a travesty.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free opens in 1809, shortly after the Spanish campaign of the Peninsular war. John Lacroix, a wounded British officer in his early 30s, is being transported back to the barely inhabited Somerset estate of his deceased father. His housekeeper nurses him back from the brink of death, but John is altered by war — in particular, an atrocity that took place in a quiet mountain village while the British army retreated from Napoleon’s forces. Instruction comes for John to return to his regiment but, wondering whether he has “lost some common, invisible thread of sense”, he decides to flee to the Hebrides instead, packing his violin as he begins his precarious journey.

Back in Spain, a British soldier called Calley is giving evidence to a military committee regarding the atrocity. “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes,” observes a shadowy superior. Nevertheless, someone must be seen to be punished and Calley is dispatched to find and kill the perpetrator. A Spanish officer, Medina, is sent along to bear witness to the execution, though he suspects they’re on a fool’s errand. Meanwhile, having made it to a remote Hebridean island on the back of a cow (one of the book’s running jokes), John encounters the Fender siblings: eccentric Cornelius, hardworking Emily, and ravishing Jane, who is five-months pregnant by Thorpe, the leader of their quasi-pagan community of free-thinkers. As they play guitars, take laudanum and drag their mattresses outside, the story looks like it might become a cross between The Wicker Man and a 19th-century stoner comedy. But the focus falls on Emily, whose sight is failing and who fears the loss of her “small independence”. John soon finds himself enthralled by this forthright, complex woman and, when they travel to Glasgow for a high-risk eye operation, the air is thick with both sexual tension and carbolic acid.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a novel of delicately shifting moods, a pastoral comedy and passionate romance story alternating with a blackly menacing thriller. It is also a book of ideas: about male violence, the impact of war and the price of freedom. Miller anchors the action in precise, convincing detail: soldiers live by Le Marchant’s Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry; intellectuals debate the geologist James Hutton and the music of Joseph Haydn. But there’s an intimacy to the way he inhabits his characters that makes them feel modern and natural. When John finds himself eating in the same hotel bedroom as Emily, Miller describes how: “Hehe could not get the word [expletive] out of his head. He was afraid he would say it — that Emily would ask some perfectly innocent question and he would say it. Would it be funny? He was sure it would not.” Miller understands that the past is not something separate from us. His wry dialogue is a particular treat, but he can also write with a lovely, soulful stillness. A passing singer who wakes Calley is: “Some man flying his voice like a kite.”

Perhaps it’s for the best that the Booker judges overlooked Miller. He has said that winning the Costa prize for Pure in 201 gave him writer’s block. Once, asked what it meant to be a novelist, he replied: “Eyes open, heart open, feet on the ground.”

–Guardian News & Media Ltd