Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 18, 2023

The Slowworm’s Song (2022), by Andrew Miller

The Slowworm’s Song shares similar preoccupations with Andrew Miller’s previous novel Now We Are Entirely Free. Once again he interrogates the issue of atrocities in warfare, this time from the perspective of a former soldier who made a terrible mistake in the heat of the moment in Northern Ireland and has never recovered from the guilt.  Over the course of his life he took a partner and had a child but his alcoholism destroyed that relationship.  When the story opens in 2011, Stephen Rose is in middle age, living on his dead father’s farm in Somerset, working halfheartedly at a garden centre and alone except for the companionship of the local Quaker group. He is sober because he has a counsellor and medication from the Bristol Liver Institute, but he knows his sobriety is always tentative.

Into this half-life comes a summons to attend an inquiry into that long-ago event.  For the benefit of readers not familiar with the exhumation of events from the Troubles era in Northern Ireland, Miller alludes to the controversial Saville Inquiry, set up in 1998 to investigate Bloody Sunday. At vast expense, it reported 12 years later, overturning the findings of a previous inquiry, said to be a whitewash.  Stephen is not reassured by the bland tone of the letter.

In the last paragraph I am informed, by way of reassurance, that the Commission is not a court of law, that its sessions are private, that it is not their intention anyone’s evidence should form the basis of a prosecution.  Am I reassured? Not very.  The Saville Inquiry reported last year.  You must have seen something about it on TV.  Perhaps you were curious as to why so much time and money had been spent trying to make sense of fifteen minutes of mayhem in an Irish city forty years ago.  (Someone in Parliament, a Tory MP, worked out how many Apache attack helicopters you could buy with the millions spent on the inquiry.) Anyway, the soldiers — those men of the Parachute Regiment involved in the shootings — were offered anonymity and told they could not incriminate themselves, but it already looks like that won’t stop prosecutions.  It’s possible some of those soldiers, men in their sixties and seventies, will go to prison. (p.5-6)

On the brink of a tentative relationship with his now adult daughter Maggie, Stephen decides not to go, and explains why in what becomes a long confessional letter, written with the promise of truth because part of being sober is being honest.

And it’s not — I hope — only selfishness, not just what I would lose. I don’t believe you’ve given up on having a father,  I think you need me to make the effort.  I’ve failed in so much! I don’t intend to fail in this, not for them, not so they can keep raking over the sorry history of that place.  How about raking over some of what their own did?  That should give them ten years’ work.  Why poke a stick in the best? I was sent there, Maggie, and younger than you are now.  That makes me a criminal? And what if you came to look at me like that? If one day you were to look at me as some of the people in that room in Belfast would look at me?  Could I survive it?

At last, an easy question!

I could not. (p.11)

In the course of the novel Stephen’s resentment emerges.

And why are we trying to sort things out now, after thirty years?  In South Africa after apartheid they got on with it straight away, or as soon as practically possible. In Rwanda, after an attempt at genocide, the machete the weapon of choice, they set up communal courts and those courts got on with it.  They knew it was urgent.  Memories were fresh.  Wounds in the flesh and in the mind still healing.  They went in when it was still hot, bubbling.  It’s risky — must be — but what you face is what happened, the thing itself, and not what thirty years has made of it.  Set the truth free? After thirty years the truth is either free already or lying on its back with its feet in the air.  (p.142)

I’ll tell you this, our smooth-cheeked prime minister would not have lasted a week in Crossmaglen or South Armagh.  And meanwhile, over there, the men who really got stuck into the killing game, they rise and rise and nobody dares whisper car-bomb or knee-capping or sectarian murder to them.  They’re groomed now and smile like babies.  They’re sitting in clean rooms.  Every day they’re quietly rewriting history.  What are we supposed to feel about that? What are the veterans supposed to feel, with their mass-produced medals in a box in a drawer?  (p.143)

But it would be a mistake to come to the conclusion that Stephen’s decision is set in concrete.  Being committed to honesty, because… for any reformed drunk it’s the place he stands, his ground… Stephen worries away at the choice he must make.  The possibility of reconciliation with his daughter and his hopes for forgiveness for his failings is bound up with what he decides to do.

It’s not possible to read this novel without very mixed feelings (which shows what a great — and brave — author Miller is.)  This isn’t just a novel about the search for truth in Northern Ireland.

Just recently as a long-term resident of my street I was interviewed by police about an historic sex offence from forty years ago.  They wanted confirmation that the person had actually lived in this street. They didn’t tell me the name and I don’t even know if this person was the victim or the alleged perpetrator. All of us who were interviewed felt some alarm that one way or another our flaky memories might be needed as testimony in a court of law.

Last year there was a trial of a woman aged 97, dating to events in Nazi Germany more than three-quarters of a century ago when she was an 18-year-old typist in the Stutthof Concentration Camp. Julian Assange’s trial, if he ever has one, will be about events decades ago and our PM who has no sympathy for Assange’s actions, is urging resolution of the matter because enough is enough.

Those two cases are examples of the awkwardness of determining in what circumstances can ‘enough’ be said to be ‘enough’.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart wants a national process of truth-telling.  I support that, see my review of Thomas Mayor’s Finding the Heart of the Nation here. The Saturday Paper this week is carrying a review about a book covering a massacre from nearly a century ago. The telling of Australia’s Black History is long overdue, and it ought, IMO, be accompanied by appropriate memorials designed in consultation with the communities where atrocities occurred.

But what Miller’s novel forces us to confront is an unpalatable truth.  Whether we are victims ourselves or not, and whether the cause was evil or human misadventure or incompetence, we want the truth about wrong doing. But when and how the search for truth is conducted matters too.

The novel doesn’t answer any questions about the morality of these attempts to ferret out the truth from long ago nor does it judge their usefulness or otherwise in terms of healing.  But in creating an empathetic novel about a ruined man and the impact of an impending enquiry on him, the author is asking whether we care about the human cost and what purpose it serves. Stephen Rose’s guilt or otherwise is irrelevant, because he doesn’t know what really happened or why. That truth is not knowable.

The Slowworm’s Song unpicks the scab of what we already know: that history and memory are unreliable, and justice delayed is justice denied.

Author: Andrew Miller
Title: The Slowworm’s Song
Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton), 2022
ISBN: 9781529354201, pbk., 276 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Oh, what an interesting book this sounds! Have you ever read David Park’s The Truth Commissioner… it treads similar ground about the Troubles. It tells the story of a fictional Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to heal the scars of Northern Ireland’s past by finding out what happened to citizens who disappeared. It posits the idea that no one ever really knows the truth, especially when so much time has passed and memories aren’t always reliable. Sound familiar?

    As for Julian Assange, I’m afraid I’m not much of a supporter. What he did with Wikileaks wasn’t journalism and it annoys me when his supporters claim his case is a direct assault on press freedom. It’s not.


    • I’ll see if I can hunt out the Park book, it sounds interesting.
      Oh, I agree about Assange. But I also agree with Albanese. If he’d been convicted in an Australian or British court of law, he’d have served his time by now. Instead, he’s imprisoned himself because he fears a vengeful life sentence in the US. (Or worse.) The problem is, how to bring him home when we have an extradition treaty with our big bullying ally.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds fascinating, Lisa. It’s such a knotty issue; I understand and agree with the need for justice, but the problem is that after decades our memories are unreliable. If I had been in your position when I was asked about something from 40 years ago I would have struggled to know if I was being accurate or not. People want absolutes and certainties, and life (and humans!) are not like that.


  3. What kimbofo and Karen say. These issues are important ones … truth is so tricky to unpick, not only because of memories because people have different truths.


    • Yes indeed.
      And different motivations. Sometimes what people really want is a scapegoat, in this case young soldiers thrown into an extraordinary situation, taking up arms against fellow British subjects, in pursuit of keeping the peace. It seems to me that if anyone is accountable it would be a politician, but they’re never held accountable for the bad decisions they make.


  4. Another book for my list!


  5. This sounds a very thoughtful exploration of its themes. I’ve lost track of Andrew Miller but I really must get back to him, he’s such an interesting writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hadn’t heard of this but must check it out – I do enjoy Miller’s work and this sounds particularly strong.

    I do understand people whose lives have been blighted, wanting to see what they feel is justice but am also uncomfortable about the length of time that elapses in some of those cases between the act itself and the trial/inquiry. How reliable are those memories going to be? Is there a risk the alleged perpetrator themselves do not get justice as a result? Tricky questions…..


    • Yes, that’s how I feel. It is awful to have suffered a wrong and feel that no one ever was held to account for it, but I don’t think that justice — meaning justice in the courts — isn’t served by raking up cases from long ago when the evidence just isn’t reliable.


      • There’s a fine line isn’t there between a desire for justice and a desire for retribution.

        Liked by 1 person

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