Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: A review

I enjoy reading historical fiction and Andrew Miller's book, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, came highly recommended. The book began with great promise. Set in the early 19th century during the wars between England and France, it tells the story of a British Army officer and veteran named John Lacroix.

We meet Lacroix when he is returned wounded in body and spirit to his estate in Somerset after a harrowing retreat across Spain. At this point, one is reminded of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series (which I loved!), but that is not what Andrew Miller is about. Instead, he brings us a kind of psychological thriller featuring a cat and mouse game with Lacroix playing the part of the mouse. At first, however, the mouse does not know that the cat is pursuing him.

Lacroix is nursed back to health by his faithful housekeeper, but he proves to be half-deaf from his injuries. Moreover, he is suffering from what we would term PTSD. Instead of returning to his regiment, Lacroix decides to head north to the Scottish islands, places he has never been and has no ties. Why does he choose this destination? There is no explanation other than that he wants to get away from war.

What Lacroix does not realize at first is that he is being pursued. While he was in Spain, we learn that he was present at the massacre of a village called Morales. The massacre was carried out by starving British troops under the command of Captain Lacroix. He was not involved in the outrage and in fact, was not aware that it was happening until it was well underway, but a vicious corporal named Calley testifies differently and the British commanders, needing a scapegoat, choose the absent Lacroix. They send Calley along with a Spanish witness named Medina to eliminate Lacroix. (Note: If you are of a certain age as I am, you will remember the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the role played by a Lt. Calley. This incident and the naming of this character cannot be a coincidence.)

From this point, the narrative of the book alternates between the implacable hunters and the, at first, clueless hunted. The suspense builds as we get to know more about the character of Calley, a particularly nasty piece of work. Meanwhile, Lacroix works his way through the islands until he reaches one occupied by a clan of vegetarian early hippies who believe in free love, non-violence, and no organized religion and who smoke something called "bang", apparently a 19th-century iteration of weed. Lacroix falls in love with one of their number, a woman named Emily, whose eyesight is failing and who may soon be blind. So we have a man with diminished hearing and a woman with diminished eyesight, who, in a way, complete each other.

There is a surgeon in Glasgow who may be able to help Emily, and Lacroix accompanies her on the trip to the city to have him examine and possibly operate on her eyes. While there, Lacroix unknowingly shares a bed in his rented room with Medina, one of his pursuers, but the two are like ships that pass in the night without hailing each other and Medina leaves the bed early in the morning, never realizing that he could have literally reached out and touched his quarry.  

As the story continued, it lost some of its steam for me. I can't really identify why. It just seemed to meander along without focus and I began to lose interest. So what had during its first half been perhaps a 4-star read got downgraded. 

This was my first experience reading Andrew Miller. His reputation as a writer of historical fiction is stellar, and I think this one is probably not the best example of his craft. It's not a bad book and there were passages that were enjoyable but I didn't find it to be the exciting psychological thriller that it apparently aspired to be.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Comments

  1. The author and book are both new to me. I enjoyed the review very much and will be making a note of this one.

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  2. Great commentary on this book. It sounds like it is infused with some unusual elements for a book that is set in this time. Do you know if there is any historical basis behind the Scottish vegetarian group?

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    1. There were actually vegetarian groups in that area in the 19th century, although I can't say if Miller has represented their philosophy completely accurately.

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  3. It is unlikely that I will read this book, Dorothy, but as I have mentioned before I always enjoy your reviews, which are very well done.

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  4. I have come across this author's name and works in book reviews and on blogs. I have not tried him yet but it sounds like he is perhaps not for you. Good on trying AND finishing!

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    1. I was ultimately a bit disappointed with this one but I may try him again at some point.

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