By Andrew Miller, published by Sceptre, 2018
This book is about who we are, who we become under duress, and who we wish we could be.
Captain John Lacroix of the Hussars has barely survived the opening phase of the Peninsular War (1807-14), and has been repatriated for recovery home to Somerset. He does not recognise himself as a survivor, more as a mourning penitent who has fled what he has witnessed, done, and left undone in a small Spanish village, the scene of a war atrocity by the British army retreating to Corunna.
Lacroix is being pursued: by the army, who want him back in arms now that a new campaign in the Peninsula is to be led by the future Duke of Wellington; by a pursuer, Corporal Calley, appointed by one who cannot be gainsaid and Calley’s Spanish companion, Lieutenant Medina; and by his own ghostlike shame. He is also pursued by death, although it takes some time for Lacroix to realise this.
Both Lacroix and Calley give themselves alternate identities, and their two stories intertwine like snakes seeking to bite each other as the deadly chase crosses the length of Regency Britain.
A convalescent trip to the Hebrides turns into a rout for Lacroix, a flight for his life and sanity. But at first he travels slowly, in all ignorance, not knowing he is laying a clear trail for Calley. Lacroix meets with plenty of more obvious misfortunes until he reaches an unlikely haven with an eccentric cultured London family, living in isolation on a unnamed island. Here Emily, with her brother Cornelius and sister Jane, are the advance party of an idealistic freethinking community, destined one suspects for failure, and rapidly running out of money. Lacroix’s plans to move on gradually change as he falls in love with Emily.
And now his luck too seems to change. There is a very near miss in Glasgow, a breath-taking encounter which Lacroix unwittingly escapes. But his idyll ends with a wrenching reunion with one of Calley’s victims, and a time for confessions on both sides of the twisted plot. As Lacroix grapples with what sort of person he really is, as well as the true identity of the man hunting him, the pace quickens into a desperate race back to the island for the final encounter. And then… shall John and Emily be entirely free?
Lovers of Pure, and other Andrew Miller historical fiction will know his uncanny ability to suck the reader wholesale into his chosen period. His touches of detail are magical in their ability to summon the era: Lacroix making bullets; the mudlark that Medina sees in Portsmouth; pioneering gaslights in Glasgow, and the new police who patrol under those blue lights; the revolutionary eye surgery Emily undergoes.
Miller’s writing is so lyrical and rhythmic that the spare brutality of Calley’s threats and behaviour is thrown into shocking relief, even while Lacroix vainly seeks to escape the horrors of Spain. The tension in this book ratchets up softly at first, gaining momentum and ending in a mighty breathless twist. That is the hallmark of a great writer in full possession of all the requisite skills, and ensures that this book will appeal to lovers of mystery and thrillers, as well as historical fiction.
In the end, Lacroix becomes who he wishes to be remembered as, and Calley? Well – spoiler alert – he too ends as he might expect, knowing himself to be capable even of murdering one he belatedly realises was his friend.
So, is there anything not to admire in this wonderfully immersive story? For me, yes. When your writing has been recognised by the award of Costa Book of the Year, you’re entitled to experiment with the shibboleths of accepted writing norms. Like shifting point of view from inside the head of one character to another, within the same scene. All the same, being entitled doesn’t necessarily make that a good idea. [See Chapter 1, for example].
And then there’s the ending. I was disappointed on first reading. And again on second reading. What need to miss out that one final sentence? I have to admit, for me the magic spell Miller casts over the entire book dissipated a little right there. A shame, but maybe that says more about me as a reader than Miller as writer. I suppose it was inevitable, as this is a book clearly aimed at the litfic market. While the story has all the pace and plot-driven suspense of the very best commercial fiction, the ambiguous ending reveals Miller’s instincts. For me personally, that was rather a shame. See what you think.