“My heart must break too”: Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song

the-slowworm-s-song-1I’ve spent thirty years trying to say something to the woman who keened over him in the alley. I have tried, drunk and sober, to find the words. At some point I began to imagine the words as a spell that would release me from a curse. I broke her heart that day. I know that. I knew it at once from the sounds she was making. I think now that my heart must break too and only then will I know what to say to her.

My book club met this week (on Zoom) to talk about Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song. It’s the first time I’ve participated since Owen died. It was nice to see everyone’s friendly faces and have our usual lively and interesting conversation. It helped that it is such a good book—helped me, that is, because it isn’t easy yet for me to engage ‘normally,’ cheerfully, but I was genuinely keen to know what everyone thought about it. Everyone in the group is so kind, too, and we’ve been meeting for so long (over a decade, now!) that this was a good place to practice being more like myself again. Once we got started, it wasn’t that difficult after all.

The Slowworm’s Song is narrated by Stephen Rose, a former soldier traumatized by his actions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He tells his story through letters to his daughter Maggie, with whom he has been belatedly and precariously building a relationship. He is prompted to write to her by the arrival of a request for him to testify in front of a commission of inquiry. The idea of bearing witness is central to The Slowworm’s Song: the need to speak the truth, and also the importance of being heard, and of listening. I wasn’t entirely sure that the epistolary set-up worked. There’s the element of artifice, for one thing (the novel does not really sound like it’s written by someone with Stephen’s history), but I wondered more about how directing what amounts to a confession to Maggie affects the novel’s themes. For example, it would have been a very different novel if we were reading, instead, the statement he prepared for the commission—not better, just different. His writing to Maggie ensures that our focus is more personal than political: that we think about the consequences of the kind of violence he is involved in for individuals, rather than in abstract or ideological terms.

One detail that intrigued me is why the Open University essay Stephen is writing off and on across the novel is about The Mill on the Floss. Maybe this is not particularly significant, but Mill isn’t the most obvious choice, and also one of Miller’s epigraphs is from George Eliot’s translation of Strauss, about how “all things are linked together by a chain of causes and effects which suffers no interruption.” And the protagonist’s name is Stephen and his daughter is Maggie, so those are also (maybe) Mill connections. However, the plot of The Mill on the Floss bears no resemblance to Miller’s novel and his Stephen and Maggie seem entirely unlike Eliot’s. All I have come up with so far is that Mill is very  much about the ways circumstances constrain people’s choices, which often therefore end up being imperfect. Eliot’s determinism is backward-looking: it explains (which is not to say it excuses) those imperfect choices by examining their contexts. That’s true of The Slowworm’s Song too, as by the end we see Stephen’s bad choices as wholly explicable, given the contexts (personal, social, historical, etc.) in which he makes them. That seems kind of thin, though. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

The Slowworm's Song - Andrew MillerThe aspect of the novel that I found the most thought-provoking is that the act that precipitates Stephen’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and despair is (relatively speaking) quite a small-scale one. There’s a lot of build-up to it, a lot of manipulative anticipation created. In the lead-up to the revelation, we hear about a range of horrifying atrocities—booby-traps and bombs; gangs kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people; cold-blooded shootings of people pulled from their cars in front of their families—so it’s almost an anti-climax when we find out that what Stephen did (“all” Stephen did) was shoot an unarmed teenager. It happens during a house search, a routine but also very tense operation: everything, we have learned by this point, is unpredictable in Belfast, and being on edge is a way of life for the soldiers on patrol. Stephen is posted in the alley; when the boy comes out of the back door, all Stephen registers is that “his hands were not quite empty.” Afterwards, Stephen is encouraged to dwell on the perceived threat: “if I’d believed my life was in danger then I’d had every right to do as I did.” He does as he’s told, and in the end there are no formal consequences beyond his being relocated out of Ireland.

There are consequences, however, for Stephen, whose life spirals into ruin, and of course there are consequences for the boy’s family and, worst of all, for the boy himself, who it turns out, poignantly, was just holding his asthma inhaler. One thing we talked about in our group discussion was that precisely because it’s “just” one killing, the novel’s focus on its devastating after-effects forces a reckoning with the scale of devastation caused by war. Multiply that one death, that one loss-stricken family, that one young man traumatized by pilling the trigger, by thousands and it feels impossible to bear, much less to justify any of it. It’s only the omnipresence of violence, including its institutionalization in the military, that makes it possible to encounter that one death and think, for a minute, that it’s not much, not that big a deal. In fact, in its singularity, because of its singularity, that one death is everything that matters, as everyone who has lost a loved one knows. Large-scale catastrophes blur our attention to individual cases (as we know about deaths due to COVID, which have been shockingly normalized, in the aggregate). Like so much great war (anti-war) literature (All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, or Testament of Youth) Miller’s story refuses to let us retreat into statistics. We get very little information about the boy and his family, but it’s enough—and for obvious reasons I felt this very deeply—to picture his mother keening over his body.

We debated whether Stephen too is meant to be understood as a victim. I think this comes back to the issue of cause and effect, and of how far an individual is responsible for decisions they make when the context of those decisions is very much outside their control. His training, his experiences up to that point in Belfast, the whole situation in Northern Ireland that put him there in the first place: it all matters, but in the end it is also his finger that pulls the trigger. Then in the aftermath, he gets no support, and the lack of real consequences hurts, rather than helps, because it is so morally destabilizing. Maybe it comes back to the point that explaining is not excusing. George Eliot knew that sympathy is not the same as forgiveness (here I think of Hetty in Adam Bede, though, not of anyone in The Mill on the Floss).

Miller seems quite interested in these questions of guilt and responsibility: at any rate, they are central to Now We Shall Be Entirely Free as well. I’ve read three of Miller’s novels now and would like to read more. His prose is not flashy but it has great resonance, and his stories are complicated—not their plots, but their problems, and their people. He’s good at pacing, too: once I started The Slowworm’s Song, I wanted to keep going, and lately that’s a rarity. Even so, I might not have managed it without some external obligation, so that’s another reason to be grateful for my book club. We settled on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility for our summer read and we plan to meet in person, outside, to talk it over. I’m looking forward to it, and that seems like a small good thing.

“Poisonous Influence”: Andrew Miller, Pure

pure-coverWine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see — that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past!

Andrew Miller’s Pure follows the work of engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, tasked in 1785 by one of the French king’s ministers, with cleaning out the overflowing and corrupted site of the Parisian cemetery les Innocents. It is a true story but also, of course, as Miller’s author’s note says, “a work of the imagination–in other words, it is historical fiction, its plot steeped in research then rendered as human drama.

Like Now We Shall Be Entirely FreePure has rich in details that make its scenes–many of them grimly horrible, as you might expect from a novel about digging up an old cemetery–exceptionally clear and immersive. A sample, from the digging of the first of many pits from which the remains are removed and then carted away to what we now know as the Catacombs:

They dig for three hours before Jean-Baptiste asks Lecoeur to call the first break. There has not, in these first hours, been much to see. The dead appear to have been reduced to shards, fragments, as if the pit had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Are they digging in the right place? Was the sexton mistaken? He and Jeanne have gone back to the house, but after the break, the pit starts to give up its treasures and every second thrust of the spade levers out some recognisable structure. A jaw with a row of teeth that look as if they might still have a bite to them. All the delicate apparatus of a foot, ribs like the staves of an old barrel. The bone mound becomes a low bone wall. There is no wood, not a splinter, nothing to suggest the men and women who went into the pit had anything more than the shelter of their own winding sheets.

Andrew_Miller_-_PureOver time the finds vary: the miners Jean-Baptiste has imported to do the excavation find well-preserved coffins (“inside is a skeleton, the residue of a man, his bones connected by patches of leathery sinew”); a school’s worth of children, laid head to toe; two young women, astonishingly preserved by “a form of mummification” (“skin, hair, lips, fingernails, eyelashes“). These last are of particular interest to the doctors consulting on the dig, using its finds for their own experiments. One is Dr Guillotin, not yet famous for his advocacy of the swift and relatively painless means of execution that came to bear his name. His presence is one of many reminders that this literal purification process is taking place on the cusp of a different kind of transformation, a purging of the past to make way for an as-yet unimagined future.

I liked a lot about Pure: Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to come to terms with the work he has been given and, in a more existential way, with his own identity; the tactility and pacing of Miller’s prose; the constant lurking sense of imminent danger. I felt a bit at sea, though, in terms of how the various pieces of the novel were meant to add up. When violence breaks out, which it does a few times, quite horribly, it felt random to me: unmotivated, unpatterned, like plot twists rather than clear manifestations of (for instance) the social and political impurities for which the stench of the cemetery seems to stand as a metaphor. The revolution is coming, but the signs of it are scattered, or perhaps a better term (consistent with all the digging!) would be subterranean, present but never quite seen or really accounted for. Quite a lot of things happen, but somehow the novel didn’t seem to have much plot, just events.

pure-3Maybe that’s what Miller wanted: to evoke a scene (which he does pretty brilliantly) and a moment, without attaching it to a larger narrative, whether personal or political. But it frustrated me that so many of the novel’s elements felt seeded with meaning that then didn’t bear fruit. I wanted something from the novel that it didn’t give me, some momentum or culmination. That is about my expectations as much as Miller’s accomplishment, I suppose. Still, when  the church they are demolishing breaks open to let the light in and Jean-Baptiste observes, “How filthy everything below now appears! How much the place had depended on its darkness!” it seemed to me that the moment was crying out to be read symbolically in a way that the novel more generally didn’t support. Miller writes wonderfully, though, and if you want a really vivid sense of what it would look, feel, and especially smell like to dig up thousands of old corpses, though, you won’t be disappointed!

“The Truth-Telling Time”: Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

miller-coverThis 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.

miller-cover-2 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.