Book Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

Book Review: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

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.

Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020

Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020

Since lockdown began I’ve been focussing on my novel Governor’s Man, and neglecting my usual short story writing. Then along came the Lincoln Book Festival 2020 flash fiction competition. The challenge was to write a complete 50-word story about the Lincoln Imp. Those of you who’ve visited Lincoln will know of the little gargoyle who sits perched on top of Lincoln Cathedral, staring down at passers by. Locals regard him as malign; he’s been blamed for all sorts of mishaps over the centuries, from housefires and miscarriages to sour milk.

Continue reading “Prize winner at Lincoln Book Festival 2020”

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #13: Weirdly over the top

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #13: Weirdly over the top

27 June 2020

Last time I promised you my review of the remainder of the Rotherweird trilogy, by QC and fantasy writer Andrew Caldecott. So I’ll begin with that, and then see how you like the segue into my catch-up on Covid-19 and our illustrious Government’s part in its downfall.

Continue reading “Life in the Time of Coronavirus #13: Weirdly over the top”

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #12: Moving On

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #12: Moving On

It’s been a while since I wrote in this blog. Sorry about that.
It isn’t that I haven’t been writing. I have – up to 1500 words most weekdays, escaping into the world of my novel Governor’s Man: the Bronze Owl. Third century Roman Britain, the south-west to be precise, with excursions into Londinium and Rome itself. It’s a surprisingly alluring haven, despite the lack of central heating and Netflix. Actually some of the scenes do feature central heating, for which my policeman/detective Quintus Valerius is endlessly grateful given the vagaries of the British climate.

Continue reading “Life in the Time of Coronavirus #12: Moving On”

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #11: Could you hang on a sec?

Life in the Time of Coronavirus #11: Could you hang on a sec?

24 May 2020

  • When I began this blog theme, back in mid-March, I may have made some sort of commitment to keeping the column a politics-free zone. I had, after all, spent much of my time from June 2016 to December 2019 blogging endlessly about Brexit and my part in its downfall. (See my Brexit blog theme, if you can bear to.)
  • Continue reading “Life in the Time of Coronavirus #11: Could you hang on a sec?”

    Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

    Book Review: The Mirror and the Light

    The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, published by Audible as unabridged audiobook, March 2020. Narrated by Ben Miles.

    Unless you’ve been under a rock since long before the Coronavirus lockdown, you’ll already know about this third and final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s astonishing fictional tour-de-force of the life and death of Thomas Cromwell. It has been an unexpected bonus of the lockdown that I’ve had time to listen to all 38 hours and 11 minutes of this audiobook, and be done long before Christmas.

    It won’t be any kind of spoiler to say that this concluding part of the story is heavily concerned with issues of life and death, reputation and legacy. During the course of the book Cromwell is increasingly weighed down by the ghosts of his past – his father, Walter; Anne Boleyn and her brother; Thomas More; Katherine of Aragon and her lost children; Jane Seymour; and above all the fatherlike figure of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who looms ever larger in Cromwell’s mind and perceptions.

    This third book is threaded through by Cromwell’s past. We meet his own unknown daughter, as well as Wolsey’s daughter, who does not believe the honour of his intentions for her. This feels like a huge blow to Cromwell, not previously someone who much minded being mistrusted. Indeed, mistrust has been a major tool to him in his rise the top. But now, shorn of his wife and daughters – legitimate and illegitimate – losing friends and allies, seemingly abandoned even by the shade of Wolsey, Cromwell’s urge to leave this life as one who is righteous in his own eyes and those of others becomes his prime motivation. The more his grasp on political power slips, even while he apparently continues an inexorable rise in status and riches, the more he dwells on the transitory nature of identity and reputation. Another reviewer has compared Cromwell to Jason Bourne, and I like this comparison myself. But this is a Bourne shorn of confusion and lack of knowledge of his past. Cromwell knows exactly where he has come from, and why, and how illusory is his hold on power and security. The end, albeit sudden, comes as no surprise to either Cromwell or the listener. It is no less shocking for all that.

    Throughout the trilogy, Hilary Mantel has used the present tense and the very narrowest third person point of view for Cromwell; meaning that he is present in every scene, all the action is mediated through his internal commentary, and we learn nothing that he doesn’t. That could have made the bounds of the story seem narrow and one-sided. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a vast canvas, on which Mantel has drawn the entire Tudor world.
    Many reviewers have praised the luminous poetic quality of Mantel’s writing, and her creation of the complex, ruthless yet utterly convincing and sympathetic main character. Others have praised her meticulous research of the period to present a huge cast of characters, and the consummate way she uses all the senses to plunge us into the toxic headlong rush of the early sixteenth century.
    An unusual and very affecting element of her writing has been to include so many of the haunting departed, dead apparently but lingering in Cromwell’s world. The Tudor period was dominated by the ghosts of those who were threats, or rivals, or loved ones, of the various Tudor monarchs. None more so than Henry Vlll. And of course, we know that after this book has closed, Henry comes to bitterly rue ridding himself of Cromwell. I wonder if he too was haunted by his past?

    There are so many strengths in this book. Yet for me, one special quality sets the whole trilogy, and particularly The Mirror and the Light head and shoulders above anything else I have read or listened to in a long time: the structure. The eponymous mirror is really a kaleidoscope, the multi-angular refraction of the world of Thomas Cromwell at the top of his game, at the moment he is about to begin the downward slide into ignominy and death. The narrative is driven by a series of dialogues during which the listener’s hackles rise, unperceived. Every encounter with the myriad of other people in Cromwell’s life, from the longed-for Kate Parr, to Wolsey’s daughter Dorothea, the frightened Mary Tudor, the vicious Norfolk, and even his own family and loved ones – Gregory and Richard Cromwell, Rafe Sadler, the weak and treacherous Call-Me Wriothesley: each of these scenes ramps up the tension, the subliminal fear, the swoop of inevitable disaster. And over them all, the vast corruscating presence of Henry himself, that regal source of light that will ultimately burn Cromwell and his achievements away to mere ash.

    I have only ever experienced such a sense of unavoidable oncoming disaster for a character who seems unforgivable and at the same time deserving of all my pity and admiration in Shakespeare: Lear, Othello, Hamlet, even Macbeth. And when I remember that we already know the end of The Mirror and the Light before the book begins, I am overcome with admiration for what Mantel has achieved.

    A word about the narrator, actor Ben Miles, who also played Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. There has been quite a lot of criticism about his voice in the Audible version, mainly it seems from reviewers who wanted him to play Cromwell as upper class. I was fortunate to study the Tudor period for A level history, and I knew then that Cromwell’s status as a plebeian who drags himself up to the top through sheer talent and hard work was at once his strength and his great weakness. In my view, Ben Miles has conveyed this to great effect. I also found his ability to distinguish between characters from one breath to the next was exceptional. I think Mantel did very well when she personally chose Ben Miles to read the book; he added greatly to my pleasure and appreciation.

    So, a five star listen, a great, great book, and a main character who will never leave me.

    Life in the Time of Coronavirus#10: Outlook uncertain

    Life in the Time of Coronavirus#10: Outlook uncertain

    10 May 2020

    I should probably confess that I’ve been cheating. Nothing horribly criminal, but the time has come to change my ways.

    The scary NHS letter two million or so of us received back in March told me that I should not pass over my own threshold till mid-June at least, on pain of likely death. Don’t pull your punches there, NHS, I thought. However, I will now admit to you I have been sneaking regularly up the ladder and over the back garden wall, where we have our own access directly onto one of the Malvern Hills. For the past seven or eight weeks I’ve been easily able to dodge oncoming walkers and have kept a good social distance by dint of avoiding narrow paths and those used by cyclists. On weekends, we’ve been taking to hidden paths that very few people know of, on the wooded western side of the Hills. We’ve never seen a soul on those quiet weekend walks, and I really valued the relief from being locked away.

    All that ended last Friday. Someone – I’ve heard it was our esteemed Prime Minister, but surely not? – somebody told the press on Thursday that social distancing was all jolly-well going to end on Monday. The right wing newspapers immediately bigged this up as if it was the Great Escape, and surprise, surprise, the cooped-up British nation burst its bounds onto the sunlit uplands of freedom. And onto the having of a wonderful long Bank Holiday-VE Day weekend. By the time I’d climbed up too many trees to get away from at least twenty other walkers (and a horse) on my supposedly secret paths, I realised the game was up. I’ll have to toe the line properly – no more woodland walks. Or run the risk of more than a “little flu”, to quote the helpful Mr Bolsonaro. A few tears got shed on the way home.

    So I was well sorry for myself by Friday evening. I then received an odd email from an elderly acquaintance, which smacked of phishing. I rang her to establish that yes, she knew, and yes, she had a helpful neighbour who had talked her through how to sort out her email account. We chatted on for a bit, and I realised that I had no right to feel under-privileged. Due to her age, my friend is also in purdah till end June. Worse, she lost her husband late last year, and lives alone in a flat with no garden. She was cheery and accepting, quite remarkable. I was left feeling thoroughly ashamed of myself. Determined to do better, Anne of Green Gables style.

    However – there’s always a but with me, isn’t there? – I would still like to know what, if any, planning and provision is being made by our Government of All the Talentless for me and the rest of the Two Million. I don’t actually expect to hear that any thought has been given to us, but it should. If we, and the people who are shielding us, are to be locked away till there’s a vaccine, I want to know that at least our existence is being recognised. I want us to be properly represented in discussions with Government, to have our case made in Parliamentary debates and at PMQs, to be acknowledged and properly provided for.

    My great fear is that with all the competing pressures, social and economic, and given the government’s propensity to lack any foresight and to be tightwad with the truth, our country faces recurrent waves of infection and fatalities. The only way to stop the virus killing more of us is to get right on top of test-track-trace, right now. If we don’t, there will be more deadly mayhem and very little chance of good evidence-based advice for any minority, including the Two Million.

    So I won’t be holding my breath at 7.00 pm tonight. But I will be thinking of my cheerful friend, so much more vulnerable even than I am. I’ll be sending her all the good wishes I can muster.

    [picture credit: good free photos.com]

    Life in the Time of Coronavirus #9: more on writing my historical novel

    Life in the Time of Coronavirus #9: more on writing my historical novel

    3 May, 2020

    This weekend we’re all waiting to hear from the Government how and when the lockdown will be eased. So, as I’m still in limbo with nothing fresh to add – apart from how long my fringe has grown this week – I’ll share a bit more about the writing of my historical novel, Governors Man.

    It’s a sideways step, via a short story. Bear with me.

    Very soon after my visit to Taunton Museum (as related in my blog of 26 April), I found myself standing on a bumpy muddy slope, looking north to the Shapwick nature reserve. The main fold of the Somerset Polden Hills was behind and above me. Under my feet were the remains of a Roman villa burned down in AD 224. As I stood there the image of a young girl sprang complete into my mind: adolescent, dark-haired, a bit on the thin side, horse-mad, bursting with energy. Let me introduce you to Aurelia Aureliana. Continue reading “Life in the Time of Coronavirus #9: more on writing my historical novel”