Andrew Miller has established an impressive reputation having won multiple prizes for his novels including Ingenious Pain (James Tait Black) and Pure (Costa).
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is the story of John Lacroix, returned home wounded and weak after the disastrous retreat from Napoleon in the Peninsular War. He is nursed back to health but cannot face returning to his regiment. With no family or friends around him he resolves to try to find peace by travelling to the distant Scottish Islands to collect folk songs as his father had done in Somerset. He is running away from his past but unaware that the British high command have deemed he must be assassinated for political reasons. As he sails north two ruthless agents are on his trail.
The journey is long and testing. A series of incidents serve to distance Lacroix from his past and force him to deal with the present rather than his troubled memories. Landing on an island, found by chance, Lacroix settles with a utopian family who live a life of apparent freedom. He accompanies one of the family, Emily, to Glasgow for radical surgery to prevent her becoming blind; they fall in love. But they are shocked out of their unexpected happiness by the news that the assassins are close on their trail. Lacroix and Emily hasten back to the island to protect Emily’s brother and sister and for the dramatic ending.
There is an appealing, page-turning simplicity to the basic story of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free but Miller’s skill and artistry make it a satisfying and memorable read. The historical detail of the everyday – how women style their hair, how to buy shoes, is convincing and deftly woven in to enrich the story. The themes of living with your past, isolation and freedom give the book depth. But perhaps most enjoyable is the vim of the writing that enables Miller to create the mood of a scene in a few words, from a bizarrely comic ride on a cow, a brutal war crime or an idyllic summer swimming party. This is a rich novel from a gifted and original writer.