Andrew Miller’s eighth novel consolidates his track record as a distinguished, much-awarded novelist who specialises in historical writing. But there is nothing merely consolidatory about this book. It is a profound exploration of culpability, written in prose that comes singing off the page.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, which opens in 1809, records the aftermath of Napoleon’s rout of the British in northern Spain. In that chaotic retreat, atrocities are carried out by British soldiers. Afterwards, justice demands that someone be held responsible. But who is more to blame: the brutalised rank-and-file perpetrators, who have themselves been subject to a lifetime of abuse, or the officer whose intervention, when it comes, is too little, too late? At what point does the pursuit of justice itself become an atrocity? And how many innocent, collateral deaths are an acceptable price for one individual’s survival?
These are disturbing questions, yet the novel is no worthy, schematic churn through a series of ethical options, but a pacy thriller. It throws out its big ideas with such lightness of touch that it’s only afterwards that the reader feels their sting. Miller writes with a unique mixture of charge and luminosity, whether about the “strange tattoo” left by the print of a corset on a beloved’s back “like two columns of zeros either side of her spine”, or the sea-smell of “the salty fish-head muck the world was made of, half Billingsgate, half sex”. All the book’s perceptions are deftly given to his characters, with the double result that the observations feel peculiarly intimate, and the characters themselves come vividly to life.
None of this slows down the action, which is essentially a pursuit that starts as the military retreat to Corunna and ends in a manhunt among the Western Isles of Scotland. For all the world like a profoundly more complex The Thirty-Nine Steps, the novel reconstructs what happens when someone who has always seen themselves as good and law-abiding – in this case John Lacroix, a young commissioned officer and would-be musician from Somerset – is suddenly cast into the role of fugitive. But this multifaceted novel also lets us into the mind of his pursuer, Calley, a rank-and-file soldier with a gift for brutality. There we find that what’s really being fought out is not merely a battle for personal survival – since fugitive and pursuer are each witness to the other’s responsibility for what is a capital offence – but a class war.
Far from prettifying the past, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free reveals an early-19th-century Britain riven between the haves –in whom we perhaps recognise ourselves, people such as Lacroix, who can recover from illness and injury in a warm room at least, rather than being thrown on the streets – and a majority population who live in squalor and absolute poverty. Calley, although his emotions are fiercely single-pointed, is in some ways a spokesman for the have-nots, as he reveals his attitudes and history fragment by fragment on the long journey north. No one harms him in the city, nor in the countryside. By contrast, as Lacroix travels through Britain he finds himself exposed to muggers, swindlers and thieves. Whenever he leaves home, whether on campaign or on the road, he seems to be fleeced of the majority of his possessions.
This tandem trip to the north is never glamorised, though Miller has a master’s touch for brief highlights of sweetness, such as an encounter with an idealist community of travellers who encourage river bathing and offer Calley and his companion herb tea. Instead, it serves to focus a sense of estrangement, even of existential loneliness. Miller is no conventional “historical novelist”, but he has set all his fiction to date in an Elsewhere. To read any of his novels is to leave behind what we think we know.
Usually his Elsewhere is the past; occasionally it’s simply another place than daily Britain. The Optimists (2005) is another novel about atrocity and responsibility, but set in an unspecified African country with similarities to Rwanda during the genocide, while The Crossing (2015) takes place partly offshore, in a boat.
All Miller’s novels create alternative worlds in which their author experiments with emotional and moral concerns. Through his hyper-real evocation of the times and places he chooses, he invites us in to join these experiments. Yet one of the chief, if incidental, joys of Entirely Free is that, although set two centuries ago, it is free of both appalling “ye olde” speak and the superabundance of “it’s different from us” research material, about the names of furnishings, costumes or types of rein for example, that deaden much period writing.
On the contrary, this novel pulls the past close. What makes other times and places recognisable and relevant is the similarity to us of the people who inhabit them. Indeed, surely one of the most pressing ethical obligations of our own time and place is to recognise ourselves in the other. Miller’s latest novel is a compelling read and an important literary achievement, not least because it does just this.
Fiona Sampson’s books include “In Search of Mary Shelley” (Profile)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
Sceptre, 423pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism