The English author Andrew Miller is not especially well known here despite his winning a number of literary awards in Europe, including the Costa Award for Book of the Year and the Irish IMPAC. Four of his eight novels are set in “the long eighteen century” (1688 – 1815) including the present one which combines a deep historical sense and generous material detail with truly diabolical suspense. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free begins in the winter of 1809 with Captain John Lacroix, unconscious and near death, being carried by coach back to his estate in Somerset, England. An officer in a cavalry regiment, he is a survivor of the disastrous 250-mile British retreat from Napoleon’s forces in Spain and the subsequent Battle of Corunna. Sick in both body and mind, he is nursed by his housekeeper and, though ordered to rejoin his regiment upon regaining his strength, he cannot bear it. Instead, he assumes the name Lavalle and sets off for the Hebrides to salve his soul and to investigate the music of the Scottish islanders. After a misfortune or two, he arrives on a small Hebridean island, ferried ashore on the back of a cow, an entrance which becomes his signature accomplishment in the eyes of the amused islanders.
Soon he meets three siblings, Cornelius, Emily, and Jane, and joins their household. Formerly from the London and brought up by a father who preached “some personal and bramble-wild version of the Gospels,” they are now members of a quasi-religious sect, “free livers,” who venerate nature—though nature has not been entirely benignant to them. Cornelius is “a martyr to his teeth,” Emily is going blind, and Jane is pregnant by the sect’s leader, a man named Thorpe who has disappeared, although they expect him to return. Sometime—soon, they hope.
Meanwhile back in Spain (England’s ally against the French), a hearing has been conducted into the pillaging and burning of a Spanish mountain village by retreating British troops who compounded their crimes by hanging the men and raping the women. Among those who testify to these events is a British infantryman, Corporal Calley, who claims to have arrived at the very end of the horrific affair. He identifies the British officer in charge who, though not revealed to the reader at this point, we assume, correctly, must be Lacroix.
Calley is given the task of tracking down and killing the guilty officer and, so that justice may be seen to have been served, he is accompanied by a Spanish officer as a witness. This is Lieutenant Medina, a cultivated man who abhors this mission and the vicious lout with whom he must travel. For his part, Calley resents having the Spaniard around, though, as holder of the purse strings and nominally in charge, he does extract an underdog’s pleasure in lording it over him. Lacroix, on the other hand, has no idea what is coming his way and an ever-darkening tincture of menace spreads through the story.
The chase, as it may be called, is an enthralling and labyrinthine one over land and sea. to Glasgow to see a famed eye surgeon about her fast-failing sight and we are ushered into the city’s new hospital to glimpse the clash of traditional medical doctrine with scientific discipline. The conditions of travel are wonderfully described, particularly the feeling of blundering about in a world so unlike our own in its filth, darkness, and absence of lines of speedy communication. Indeed, in a most pleasing twist of the plot, Calley’s and Medina’s course intersects at one juncture with Lacroix’s, all unbeknownst to both parties. Other stray coincidences ornament the story, conveying how the early-nineteenth-century world is, at the same time, both circumscribed and unfathomable.
This is a completely engrossing novel, rich in the details and feeling for a vanished age, deft in character portraits, and almost unbearably suspenseful. It is, in fact, the sort of book that takes more will power than I normally possess to prevent myself, while reading it, from turning ahead to the last page. I held myself back, though, and was duly rewarded. ##