A review of Andrew Miller’s novel
An English officer returns from the Napoleonic wars, sick in body and mind. John Lacroix travels to forget his experiences in Spain, not realising that he is drawing someone sinister towards a remote and unsuspecting community. How guilty is Captain John Lacroix and how many people will pay for that guilt?
As in Pure, Oxygen, The Optimists and Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller’s latest novel explores culpability, justice, damage, mercy, love and redemption.
Small, everyday kindnesses and routines—the sharing of a meal, a family making music, men swimming for pleasure’s sake—are contrasted with acts of cruelty and senseless violence. In Andrew Miller’s novels, wisdom comes to the protagonist, but it is burdened with sadness. There is, as ever, damage and a reckoning.
“He too could sing a little, and for several minutes, as the song spooled out in the dimness of the room, the summer grey, they were self-forgetful and unopposed to the world. Their private histories, the private suffering of their bodies, released them. They escaped their names. Religion and its shamings might never have been thought of. Even their own fates, separate and shared, appeared to them with subtle alterations that altered everything. One more round, one more verse. Pleasure crept up their limbs like hemlock.” Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Chapter 11
When Andrew Miller introduces a flawed and monstrous character such as Corporal Calley, he lets us understand how they came to be what they are. We can almost pity Calley for his humourlessness, his savagery, his inability to form friendships or enjoy anything, because we know what stunted him, physically and psychologically. If we do not keep the social contract with Calley the child, why should we expect Calley the adult to keep it?
The innocent and simple lives of the people John encounters unfold with the tides and the seasons, but menace is threaded through the story, which is on one level a literary thriller. Characters such as Emily, fighting for independence, and the rootless, restless Calley make this 1809 story feel contemporary.
“This was not how he had imagined it, the truth-telling time. It was as if his secrets had altered in the keeping, had grown like living things, so that he did not quite know them any more. Or that they were not entirely his, not the private stash or black treasure he had imagined. And once more it came to him, the thought that had touched him several times since coming back from Spain, that we are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. Everything is present, everything in view for those who know how to look.” Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Chapter 17
Andrew Miller writes of vengeance, guilt and tenderness with such restraint, elegance and compassion; I only wonder why he is not better known.