Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover image I have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

28 thoughts on “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war”

          1. Compared with paper versions. digital publications cost next to nothing to produce, so pricing them higher than a paperback is clearly a strategy.

  1. Interesting observation that his historical fiction is what lights up his work for you. I do love a work of historical fiction when it gets everything right and can enlighten me on a historical period at the same time while being fully engaged in a story. I wonder why it didn’t make the long list.

    1. I’ve long since ceased asking myself why very fine books don’t make it onto award lists, Claire. I’d be amazed if it wasn’t nominated. Funnily enough I’m not always keen on historical fiction but Miller’s writing is so evocative and his research never gets in the way of the story.

  2. A close friend of mine shares your enthusiasm for Miller’s work, also citing Ingenious Pain as one of her favourite books (along with Music and Silence by Rose Tremain). I’m sure she would love this. It was also very positively reviewed on R4’s Saturday Review at the weekend – as you say, it does appear to be Miller at his best.

  3. I’ve not read Ingenious Pain but have now added it to my TBR, as I’ve enjoyed both Pure and The Crossing. I’m reading this one at the moment and so far, so very good.

  4. Ingenious Pain is a book which will always have its place on my library shelves. I fell in love with it the minute I saw the cover, read the title and then read a few sentences from a random page. It’s a story that stays with you. I didn’t finish Pure as I was after an Ingenious Pain fix a few months later, but maybe one day I’ll give it a chance. So I’m really happy to hear your sentiments towards his new work. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for that one x

    1. It certainly does. Such an unusual premise and the writing is gorgeous. I enjoyed Pure but, as you say, it’s not quite a match. I’d still say Ingenious Pain is my favourite Miller but this one’s well worth investigating.

  5. Pure cropped up in conversation during the Summer School, cited as one of those books that creates images that will never leave your mind regardless of whether you enjoyed it or not (personally I loved it). I looked at the reviews for this and wondered whether to order a copy; you have convinced me.

  6. Oh God, isn’t it wonderful. Can’t believe it wasn’t on the Man Booker list – genuinely shocked. A colleague has lent me Oxygen, which I understand is one of his contemporary-set ones; I’m braced for it to not be quite as good, but Ingenious Pain and Pure are the ones I’m really invested in reading, anyway.

    1. It certainly is. I’m sure you’ll love Ingenious Pain and Pure, Elle. Oxygen is enjoyable enough but Miller’s definitely at his best when wriitng historical fiction.

  7. I saw this mentioned on a list somewhere recently and found myself drawn to it by the description. Then just the other day I saw it was still available for request on NetGalley, so hoping to get approved for it.

  8. I also adored Ingenious Pain but I’ve lost track of Miller a bit – like Cathy, I dug Pure out of the TBR when your recent mention of Miller reminded me! It’s next on the bedside table 🙂 This also sounds wonderful.

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