There are always questions when a soldier returns home. The questions range from the obvious “how are you?” to the inevitable and dreaded “what did you do?” John Lacroix is typically tight-lipped about his experiences in the failed Peninsular War against Napoleon in Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. He returns to his lonely family estate with bloody feet, partially-deafened, and aimlessly depressed. He takes off for the north shortly after his homecoming. At first, he is only fleeing his terrible memories of Spain. What he doesn’t know is that he’s also being pursued by two men with murderous intent. What John did during the war is a very important question and the answer will decide whether he should live or die.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also a book about journeys. John’s purported reason for going to the islands north of the Scottish mainland is music. His father collected songs. But as a partially deaf man, this reason is a little thin. No one really tries to stop him. It’s clear that he’s not happy and needs something to do—also, going north will him him avoid the re-assembly of his regiment. The only thing worse than the memories of war would be going back to make more.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for John; he was clearly not meant to be a soldier. And I did feel sorry for him until I met the other travelers. Calley is a soldier through and through, which makes him the perfect man for the job of hunting John down. Calley testifies at a tribunal that John was the leader of a group of British soldiers that committed an atrocity against innocent Spanish civilians. To avoid bad press, Calley is dispatched to Great Britain—with a Spanish officer as a representative of the Spanish government—as a witness to John’s execution. From there, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free becomes a curious mix of slow sections about John finding himself again with tense sections about the determined Calley and the amiable gentle Spaniard, Medina.
The chase plays out over months. In fact, things get so tense—especially once John learns that he has people after him—that the ending was almost anti-climactically brief. So much so, that I’m actually a little puzzled by this book. Miller built up a lot of wonderful dramatic tension, with well-timed revelations that made me wonder who the real villain was. There are also some undeveloped characters and settings that I wanted to know more about. One of the things that draw me to books set during the eighteenth century or the Regency is their lush descriptions of sights, sounds, and tastes. There is detail in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, but not nearly as much as I wanted.
I enjoyed John as a character, as well as his budding relationship with Emily, one of the women who shelters him on their remote Scottish island. This book is also an interesting example of a soldier’s mental struggles in a historical setting. I just with that this book had more: more set pieces, more description, more character development for the secondary and tertiary characters. Sadly, this book was a little disappointing for me.