“Now we shall be entirely free”

This is my review of  “Now we shall be entirely free”   by Andrew Miller.

After the disorderly flight of the British from Napoleon’s soldiers in the 1809 Battle of Corunna, Captain John Lacroix is accused in his absence of involvement in atrocities against some Spanish villagers. Shipped back to his Somerset home in a state of collapse, he proves understandably reluctant to discuss the disastrous war, or to return to active service. His decision to take a trip to the remote Hebrides makes more sense when it becomes clear that the sadistic psychopath Corporal Calley has been despatched to execute him, with the urbane Spaniard Medina in tow to check that summary justice is served without any embarrassing publicity.

The author apparently wanted to write the kind of adventure yarn he loved as a boy, but in fact the precise “genre” of this historical novel is hard to define: it settles fairly quickly into the familiar pattern of chapters alternating between pursuer and pursued, with some moments of high tension fed by coincidence, but is also a psychological drama with a somewhat dream-like quality in its focus on the two introspective characters, Lacroix and Medina, who meander passively through an absurd world of beauty, brutality, fate and culpability.

Since Andrew Miller managed to make a gripping tale out of the removal of an C18 Parisian cemetery in his prize-winning novel “Pure”, and seems to offer a promising plot in this highly praised novel, perhaps my expectations were too high at the outset. The minor errors of detail spotted by some readers did not bother me. I was more concerned that the storyline seems padded out at times with wordy descriptions of banal activities, which one could of course argue adds to a sense of authenticity. This point is countered by the fact that many incidents appear unconvincing, even implausible.

Although the Hebridean island where Lacroix finds refuge and love is probably an amalgam of several actual ones, maps and notes on the background history would have been useful, but perhaps the whole point is that this is a novel claiming artistic licence rather than historical and factual accuracy. For much of the book, I felt quite unengaged, too aware of the repetition of words, and overuse of brackets for asides the author could not resist making, but did not wish to spend time weaving into the text. The much-admired examples of poetic prose also often seemed to me to strike an artificial, contrived note, although I was amused by the occasional touches of humour which leaven what is in many ways a sombre tale.

What kept me reading was the desire to find out what lay in store for Lacroix, and the extent to which he was guilty. The ending disappointed me, but perhaps its ambiguity serves to leave one speculating to what extent Lacroix felt, rightly or not, that he deserved to be punished, and the degree to which this may have upset his mental balance.

I am left with a sense of ambivalence, being unable to decide whether I have failed to grasp this book’s imaginative power, or am justified in the assessment that it could have been done better.

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