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.
Recently on Twitter, when the topic of the latest Booker Prize shortlist came up, I commented that I’ve starting paying more attention to other prize lists when scouting for books to read. I still eye the Booker list, of course, but I am increasingly interested in the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, for one, which plays more predictably to my own preference for both good scene setting (yay, exposition!) and strong storytelling. Historical fiction comes with risks, of course, as George Eliot acknowledged (risks she conspicuously failed to avoid in Romola), and there are plenty of flatly mediocre examples of the genre to be had (as there are of every genre) but for me, really good historical fiction is about as good as fiction gets (ahem).
Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the fourth book from this year’s longlist that I’ve read: I reviewed Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind for the TLS a year or so ago; I read both Cressida Connolly’s After the Party and Michael Ondaadje’s Warlight this summer. Warlight is the only one I didn’t appreciate (I found it beautifully written at the level of its sentences but somehow also extremely boring); the other two I’d read before were very good, and Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is excellent.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a soldier trying to escape his guilt-ridden memories of atrocities carried out by British soldiers in Spain during the Napoleonic wars, as he makes his way to the Hebrides; it also follows, in parallel, the two men–one English, one Spanish–dispatched to find him and hold him accountable for what happened. As his pursuers close in on him, finding their way by ruthlessly forcing the people on Lacroix’s path to tell them where he has gone, Lacroix himself, unaware of the impending danger, begins to open himself up to the world again, gradually letting glimpses of beauty and love into the bleakness he carries with him and feeling the faint reawakening of hope:
And did he really care about the names of the islands? This was the tall one, this the sleek, this the bare, this like something made more entirely from light and water. They were beautiful–more so than he had prepared himself for, and it comforted him a little that he had had the sense to find them, the world’s scattered edge, that there was in him, perhaps, some trace of a wisdom that could guide his actions.
Though we don’t know until nearly the end exactly what he blames himself for, it is impossible to take this journey with him and believe he deserves the fate the men on his trail have been ordered to inflict.
I won’t give more specifics about the plot; I’ll just note that it sets up a structure that is at once simple and increasingly suspenseful. Miller makes good use of the common trope of a geographical voyage also being a voyage of personal discovery, so that the cat and mouse game over time becomes something at once subtler and more complex. Though the plotting is very precise, even the moment when hunter and quarry coincidentally and unwittingly cross paths didn’t feel contrived: it just added to the evidence (shared eventually by at least one of Lacroix’s pursuers) that they are not really seeking a legible or reasonable form of justice but are carrying out a more arbitrary exercise of power, playing their parts in a game none of them can ever really win because those who made the rules don’t care who they really are–or who they could be, if they were free to choose.
The linear design of the novel gives it a lot of forward momentum, but not so much that you want to rush through Miller’s wonderful prose, which is resonant without ever being florid or overly ornamental. There are some fanciful touches–I liked the description of the two pursuing soldiers walking in the woods with “the war spooling from their backs like silk,” for example. It’s the descriptions of the setting that really shine, though, as is both right and necessary given the restorative role the Hebrides play in Lacroix’s odyssey. Here’s a sample, in this case from the perspective of the Spaniard on his trail, who has had a revelation of his own about what kind of journey is really worth making:
The sun was rising swiftly and he saw that he was standing at the edge of a meadow, the grasses growing from sand, and in the grass myriad small flowers he had not been aware of when he came the first time, that must have been closed against the weather, the chill of evening. Now, discovered by the sun, they ignited, one by one. The yellow and the white, the gold and the red, so that he seemed to be looking across a field of small lights afloat on the shallow water of morning shadow. Under his bare feet the ground was fibrous with a structure of endless soft branchings. It was odd to take in the world through his feet, the soles as sensitive, as inquisitive as a tongue. … Someone, he thought, someone should have taught me how to meet joy better.
There is a lot of suffering in the novel: that harsh experience, grief, and failure should make us welcome, not turn away from, joy is one of the lessons Lacroix struggles to learn and that Miller, indirectly, offers us in our turn. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is full of the kind of historical detail that gives its world solidity, but it is not burdened by it; Miller uses his very specific and deftly dramatized story about a particular time and place to explore the kinds of choices we all have to make in our lives about where to go and why, and to ask what we hope to find if we ever get there.