1809, active descriptions, Andrew Miller, book review, emotional insight, emotional vulnerability as strength, England, historical fiction, inferences, literary fiction, manhunt, Napoleonic Wars, romance, Scotland, soldiers, Spain, thriller, violence
Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller
Europa, 2019. 410 pp. $19
One rainy night in 1809, a coach pulls up to a vacant country house in Somerset, discharging a badly injured man. Nell, the housekeeper, can’t tell whether it’s John Lacroix, master of the house, for he possesses few recognizable clothes or belongings, and facial hair and wounds obscure his features. However, Nell tends him; and yes, it’s John, an officer of hussars returned from a disastrous campaign in Corunna, Spain, against Napoleon. John slowly recovers from his physical wounds, pleasing Nell and his beloved sister, Lucy, but he’s emotionally out of sorts and refuses to speak of his war. And when a comrade visits to urge him to heal quickly and return to his regiment, John decides to travel instead and settles on Scotland as a destination. He’ll look for an island where he may find solitude and solace, though how he envisions those qualities remains vague, even to himself.
Meanwhile, two men have been sent, unofficially yet on high authority, to hunt him. Why they’ve targeted John is unclear, at first. All you know is that one of his seekers, Calley, is as vicious a brute as any who’s ever drawn breath. On sighting a man he’s never met, for example, he measures up the newcomer to guess whether he’d be his equal in a brawl. It’s Calley against the world, and he’ll come out swinging.
This brilliant, delicately written thriller has to do with a manhunt, obviously, but offers a significant twist. John’s hunting himself too, though he doesn’t know that yet, trying to figure out who he is. His entire life, he’s accepted a given version of himself and can’t see its constraints. Instinctively, he turns away from questions, especially the existential kind. But on his travels, he meets Emily, a freethinking woman who’s going blind, yet sees what he can’t (a lovely touch). As he learns to trust her, he opens himself up to insight and reflection — which is all very well, but two men are trailing him.
To call a thriller “delicate” may sound strange, especially considering that this one, like many, portrays its share of violence. Yet the adjective fits. Miller’s is a subtle hand; he shows just about everything, letting you infer from his beautiful, lucid prose all you need to know while keeping John and Emily less open to themselves than to the reader. That’s extraordinary storytelling. Like a house assembled by artisans who take pride in details that few visitors or even residents would ever notice, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free reflects the author’s dedication to moments small and large, characters major or minor. Nell, the housekeeper, has an inner life, as does John’s sister, Lucy, though neither plays a lengthy role. Such loving attention extends even to characters with whom our protagonist never even interacts:
He would stroll while he was still free to do so, and he set off, walking away from the water and turning into a narrow street of gabled buildings, part of the city’s medieval guts. Through cellar windows he saw backs bent over benches, cutting, sewing. He saw through two windows — the whole body of a house — a garden where men were twisting rope. At the gates of a yard he saw three giants stripped to the waist, their skin blushed blue from some process they were resting from. They watched him as he passed. They looked like men made almost mad by what they did.
Note that this prose, which carries you through what might otherwise seem like a digression, puts you — and John — in the scene actively, conveys a notion of his character and an image of early nineteenth-century English life.
Also impressive, and what few authors succeed at, the villain has his due. Calley’s thoroughly repugnant, yet you glimpse the kind of life he’s had, and why he might have surrendered to his crueler instincts — all of it suggested, never announced.
Andrew Miller has written a splendid story that’s at once a page-turning novel of suspense and an inquiry into what defines freedom. I highly recommend Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, one of the finest novels I’ve read in several years.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.