This is the first of an intermittent series where I will be writing brief reviews of military fiction, especially books set during the Napoleonic era.
Today’s book is ‘Now we shall be entirely free’ by Andrew Miller. It’s not really a war book as such but is essentially about two British soldiers fresh from Sir John Moore’s advance into Spain at the end of 1808 and the retreat at the beginning of 1809.
We meet a cavalry officer, John Lacroix, as he returns to his family estate broken physically and mentally by the retreat to Corunna. Slowly he is nursed to health by his housekeeper – Nell.
As the book transpires we discover that Lacroix is in fact now wanted for his part in a warcrime against Spanish civilians. To appease the Spanish a senior British officer agrees to allow a Spanish nobleman and a British NCO to travel to Britain and kill Lacroix.
The plot feels slightly far-fetched, though I’m sure that starving British troops were guilty of crimes against Spanish civilians who often seemed unwilling to help them. To learn more about the hardships of the retreat you may want to listen to this episode of my podcast.
For me the most interesting character of the story is the English NCO – Calley (no coincidence to those who know their Vietnam history). The first time we meet him we get a good look inside his mind:
“It was his habit, when looking at any stranger, to think first of how, in a fight, he would overcome him. His own build was slight – you do not grow tall, do not grow broad shoulders living as he had lived as a boy. Despite this, there were very few he thought he could not take, if only because of his willingness to start at a pitch most had no stomach for. He was not a fantasist. He had put himself to the test many times.”
I think any of us who grew up in England’s industrial cities will know people who think like this. Calley is an extreme example of many people I have met over the years. He was raised tough – violence to him is as easy as breathing, and throughout the book we see this over and over again:
“Calley brought the brass head down on the spur of his left hip. Brought it down like a hammer. William dropped to his knees and Calley caught him, pressing a hand over his mouth, waiting for the first wave of pain to pass. Then he spoke into his eyes. ‘You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.”
So, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. All I will say is there is a twist that I saw coming a mile away, but is still very well executed.
It is a beautifully written novel and does a good job of painting a picture of Georgian Britain. For those who like their novels packed with action and battles this isn’t for you, but if you feel like a change of pace and a chance to think deeply about war and what it does to people then it is well worth a read.
Quality of the writing – 10/10
Plot believability – 7/10
Historical accuracy – 7/10
Total – 24/30
Conclusion: A great novel, but not one I would recommend for those of us who prefer rip-roaring action novels such as those by Bernard Cornwell.