I am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.
Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does.
So there is something of a John Buchan type thriller in this set-up. A kind of cat and mouse chase while, Lacroix, with his music and gentle melancholy, is the kind of guy we want to like and cheer on to a happy ending. So far, so nail-biting. Miller brings in a bunch of interesting characters on the island where Lacroix finds himself, battered and bruised and earning the sympathy of the locals. A quaintly alternative English family of one brother and two sisters welcome him, eager for company, and Lacroix settles in.
There is plenty in the plot to keep you turning the pages, but to rush through the book is to miss a lot of its wonders. Miller is such a beautiful writer, elegant and spare but also poetic at times and humorous at others. A thread of romance runs through a chunk of the book as well as thoughts on some interesting subjects – the brutalising effects of war, and issues of class which restrict people’s options. Music and medicine, seamanship and comradeship are there too. If I hadn’t been so eager to find out what happened, I would have found more I’m sure. This is definitely a book to reread and savour. Four and a half out five for me.