Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2022

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018), by Andrew Miller

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is my first online review of a novel by English author Andrew Miller, but it’s not the first I’ve read.  I was impressed by the thoughtful treatment of complex issues in Oxygen (2001) and The Optimists (2005) but (because I confused him with A.D. Miller who wrote the rather tawdry Snowdrops) I did not seek out Pure (2011), which won the Costa Book of the Year. I bought Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) because of the buzz around Miller’s visit to Australia for the Perth Writers Festival in 2019.  (He just scraped in before the Covid border restrictions!)

Miller revisits the issue of atrocities in warfare from The Optimists but from a different angle. The Optimists deals with a traumatised photojournalist on a quest for the perpetrator of a massacre in a place not unlike Rwanda, and the issue explored is not vengeance but rather how a witness to an atrocity can come to terms with what he has seen.  Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, however, can be dated to 1809 by a reference to Haydn’s recent death in Vienna, and it traces the vengeful pursuit of an officer present at the British army’s retreat from Spain at Corunna during the Napoleonic Wars.  Military discipline had #understatement broken down leading to an atrocity not unlike the notorious German reprisals on villages during WW2.  The presiding authority at an enquiry by the British Army comes to the conclusion that in the chaos of the retreat the men were pushed beyond their limits, and…

After all, it is not as if such things are unknown.  No ancient and honourable institution without its ancient and honourable crimes. (p.70)

However, the Spanish have been humiliated and in the interests of diplomacy and to maintain Spain’s alliance with the British against the French, a covert decision to pursue a scapegoat is made.   The central character John Lacroix was the senior officer present at the atrocity, though his actions are not revealed until the end of the novel.  He is to be the sacrificial lamb in an illegal and unofficial extrajudicial killing for political purposes.

Though the reader always knows that the manhunt is immoral, for nearly all of this gripping story, she does not know whether Lacroix is culpable or not.  But there is a clue in his name. Lacroix (of French origin) means the cross, an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — a sacrificial lamb bringing redemption to sinners.

The title of this novel is an undercurrent throughout the novel, which creates a tension between the contrasting characters.  Can anyone be ‘entirely free’ of obligations, loyalties, duty, responsibilities, or culpability?

We are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. (p.341)

The narrative tension is skilfully maintained right to the end through the parallel narrative of pursued and pursuer. The novel begins with Lacroix’s return to his family estate in Somerset. Bedraggled, his feet raw, and on the brink of death, he is nursed back to a fragile health by the devoted servant Nellie, who has managed the house alone in his absence.  He does not know that he is the subject of a manhunt, but he soon learns that he is expected to return to his unit and would be better to do so voluntarily rather than be press-ganged into it.  But he is not willing to fight again.  When fit enough to travel, he decides to continue his beloved father’s work in collecting folk songs from the remote islands of the Hebrides, and sets off to embark from Glasgow via his married sister’s house in Bristol.

Ironically, there are episodes in Glasgow which reminds us that violent crime didn’t need a rationale, and that for women, the place where they were most at risk is in the birthing bed.

Very soon afterwards Corporal Calley comes to Somerset in pursuit, along with Medina, a Spanish officer and translator of Calley’s testimony at the enquiry.  Miller is economical: he provides only an oblique hint to explain how Calley persuaded Nellie to give him the information he needs.  Medina’s reactions are ambiguous: what does he suspect, and what should he do, since they are both military men, following orders?  The sense of menace grows as Calley makes his way to Lucy in Bristol.  Each time Calley reaches a destination along the trail, there is another information source at risk from his amoral brutality.

At a stage in the narrative where Calley has been established as a brute, we learn his backstory and his initiation into the world of violence. When old enough to work, he was taken from the London workhouse  to a cotton mill where he worked fourteen hours a day.

‘In the last hours of the day the overlockers beat us without pause.  They beat us to keep us awake for we would, in truth, have slept on the floor, in the grease there.  Sometimes they used a bobbin, sometimes a strap like those that drove the machines.  One, name of Ramsden, had a knob-stick he called ‘father’.  Thy lids are drooping, lad.  Shall I fetch out fadder? I will tell you this, I have known mill boys in the army, a good number of them.  They think it cushy to get ten licks of the cat for coming on parade with dirty boots.  (p.211)

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free full of moral ambiguities when people are put to the test.  It’s gripping reading rendered in sensual prose and vivid historical detail — everything from the food the characters eat to the clothing they wear and the shelter they sleep in.  Even the minor characters are unforgettable, and with deft light touches Miller alludes to the social and historical context of this period in England:

The steps from the quayside were steep and narrow, and Lacroix’s bags brushed against the blackened walls.  A big herring gull watched him come, stood its ground, then flew off low over his head.  He winced, felt foolish, kept climbing.  The higher he went, the better the houses.  His sister’s place was a little over halfway up and would in time, no doubt, be higher still. Her husband, William Swann, was the son of a man who had run a team of drays in the city, an intemperate man, a notorious brawler, but William was sober, industrious, a respected shipping agent who combined a sure knowledge of the Bible with a sure grasp of book-keeping and the life of money.  And having Lucy for a wife made his rise more certain.  A gentleman’s daughter counted for something, even in a city like Bristol where old money meant the slavers whose ships lay idle now but who still lived on the city’s heights like nabobs. (p.76)

Andrew Miller is an exceptional storyteller, and this novel is exceptional historical fiction.

You can listen to an ABC interview with Miller here.

Other reviews well worth reading are at Rohan Maitzen’s Novel Readings and at Brona’s This Reading Life.

Author: Andrew Miller
Title: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
Cover illustration by Anna Higgie
Publisher: Sceptre (an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, Hachette), 2019, first published 2018
ISBN: 9781444784664, pbk., 422 pages
Source: personal library

 


Responses

  1. I have Oxygen on the shelf still to read. I’ve been working on shrinking the piles of books.

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    • ha! A fruitless quest! Over at Booker Talk she was working on ‘shrinking the piles’ and her loved ones sabotaged it by giving her lots of books for Xmas!

      Liked by 1 person

      • One occasion when I am happy to have my plans sabotaged! At least it saved me the misery of opening scented candles and endless supplies of body lotion :)

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        • I think your givers deserve medals for knowing your taste and your needs so well:)

          Liked by 1 person

          • I might have dropped a few hints….

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  2. It’s confusing, and thanks for clarifying. I tried Snowdrops and gave up so I’m glad this is another Miller and this sounds much better!

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    • Yeah…Snowdrops. I’d summarise that book’s origins as “I’ve visited this place that not many other people have gone to so I will write a book about my shallow impressions of it.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. He’s so adroit in capturing the essence of a time and a place yet never makes me feel he is dumping info on me. Pure was my first experience of his work and I still can smell the stench coming from the cemetery that is being emptied and the bodies moved. Well worth reading

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    • Yes… Joes (Rough Ghosts) was telling me about Pure and how good it is. None of my libraries have it, so it looks as if I’ll have to track down a secondhand copy.

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  4. I really enjoyed Miller’s early novels and then I lost track of him. This sounds excellent – I’ve a feeling I might have a copy buried in the TBR somewhere…

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  5. I never heard of this author. It sound like he writes some good books.
    Nice review.

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    • Thanks! I plan to read more of this author:)

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  6. A terrific read! I just finished it. ‘Pure’ was terrific as well.

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