There is only one Andrew Miller. In the 20 years since his debut novel Ingenious Pain won both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, he has written a series of books which have captured the imaginations of readers and critics alike. Oxygen (2001) was shortlisted for the Booker, while in 2011 Pure, the tale of a young engineer in pre-revolutionary Paris clearing the notoriously overstuffed Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, won the Costa Book of the Year award. Miller is read around the world; as a British author of (mostly) historical fiction that is both popular and literary, his peers are Hilary Mantel and, perhaps, Sarah Waters.
After a brief sojourn in the here and now for his last novel The Crossing, Miller returns to the there and then for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, there being Somerset and then being 1809 and the aftermath of the disastrous British engagement with Napoleon’s forces in Spain. On a dark and stormy night, a dying officer is carried unconscious over the threshold of his home, empty save for his housekeeper:
Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. Officers did not have packs like this… this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth. And this was what he had come back with? This and nothing besides?
The soldier’s name is Captain John Lacroix and, thanks to that housekeeper, he lives to fight another day — or, rather, to desert. As Lacroix recuperates, it becomes clear that something appalling has happened to him which he cannot face. Meanwhile, an English corporal called Calley and a Spanish officer named Medina are on the trail of the officer in charge of retreating British troops who have committed an atrocity in a Spanish village; Calley, a witness to mass rape and murder, is under orders to kill this man.
When the order comes to return to his regiment, Lacroix escapes to the Hebrides and Miller sets several suspense narratives running at once. Will Lacroix be caught? Is he the guilty man Calley and Medina are seeking? And can he come to terms with what he may or may not have done in Spain?
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, then, is simultaneously a historical novel, a thriller and an exploration of the forms redemption may take. The plot grips and surprises. Miller’s prose remains poetic and taut, with an eye for the telling detail: ‘The room was not the kind of room given to eminent men. Its smallness, its lack of a fireplace, sconces, furniture of any standing beyond the disposable.’ And he excels at creating characters who are defined, but not limited, by a specific time and place, not just Lacroix, Calley and Medina but the minor players too. Historical or otherwise, this is fiction — storytelling — at its best.