Historical fiction is my favourite of all genres. It’s probably also why I love classic books so much. Even if they were contemporary stories when written a hundred years ago, they are now historical fiction to me.
I’m not sure why I love being immersed in a time so far removed from our own, except I do love learning about times and places and peoples I would otherwise know little about. I love the imaginative journey, based on factual information, that my favourite historical fiction writers take me on. I also love the sense of continuity I get by seeing that even though our worlds may look and sound different, that people still go through the same emotional journeys regardless of the the historical era.
It comforts me to know that I’m not the first person to feel sad, scared, excited, hopeless, fearful, depressed, out of my depth, deliriously happy or just plain flat. Reading how other people, in other times, have survived and learnt to navigate a graceful way (or not) through their emotional stories, helps me to find ways to do the same in our more modern world.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller is a Napoleonic era story all about people running from their pasts; that thing so many of us have tried to do as some point. The hope that moving away or moving on or changing one’s surroundings will help us find a better version of ourselves or escape an older unpalatable truth.
However, as we all learn eventually, you cannot run from your past or who your really are, it will always come back to haunt you, one way or the other, until you face it square on, accept it, deal with it, learn from it and incorporate this into a newer, evolved you.
It seems that everyone in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free has a secret and something to hide. Shadowy figures dictate/guide the behaviour of our lone gunman as well as the family of siblings that we later find on an island off the coast of Scotland. Our protagonist is riddled with guilt and doubt and we’re not quite sure, as the reader, where the truth lies.
The ending doesn’t necessarily clear anything or everything up either. We learn about the truth of the matter that drives the story, but many things are left unresolved. Who was the unknown General that directed Calley to track down and kill Lacroix? And to what purpose? What was his motive? Was it a way for Miller to show us that Calley was not, and never would, be a free agent or free from his past. Was he making a comment on the importance of childhood in nurturing emotionally healthy adults?
We also explore the impact of war on not only the ones doing the soldiering but on innocent civilians as well. The civilians of little Spanish villages and those in England left to live with their returned traumatised soldiers. No-one leaves a war zone unscarred. Except perhaps those shadowy power-hungry figures behind the scenes pulling the strings.
This story felt more straightforward than Miller’s previous books, but there were still plenty of Miller’s trademark twist and turns and unexpected insights. Miller writes a tense cat and mouse chase mixed with some romantic ideals and psychological insights. I enjoy the suspense, the little insights into human behaviour, the quiet moments between people that feel very authentic, but I do wish he would give us a little more resolution. But perhaps that’s life. Nothing is ever resolved to our satisfaction. We all have memories we’d rather forget, yet finding a way to live with them can finally bring us a sense of peace. There’s always things left unsaid, undone, but we continue on, searching for peace and freedom and a sense of belonging in this crazy, chaotic world we find ourselves living in.
However, if anyone would like to discuss the ending with me in the comments below, please do! One day I think it meant one thing; the next day another. I’d love to hear what you think.
And if you haven’t read any Andrew Miller before, and you love great storytelling with an historical fiction setting, then this is your guy.