Perhaps some readers will be disappointed that Miller has come back to mainstream fiction after that brief excursion into the experimental. But not many. After all, as well-written books by intelligent people go — and maybe even passable imitations of our much-celebrated 19th-century novels — this is a particularly enjoyable and satisfying one.
By the end of the opening sentence of Andrew Miller's new novel, we're already knee-deep in fictional territory he has made his own. It's not just the sheer muddiness of the mud – almost a character in its own right in his 2011 Pure, the story of the excavation of an overflowing cemetery in pre-Revolutionary Paris. It's the way in which, even when his plots are briskly ticking along, there's no thinning out of sensory texture. A room is "scented with the soft smell of itself – wood, old fabrics, the coal-breath of the fireplace". John Lacroix, the soldier who recovers to become the novel's central character, feels "time slipping like honey through muslin" as he stares out to sea from the deck of the merchant brig on which he's escaping incognito from Bristol to Glasgow.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, then, is simultaneously a historical novel, a thriller and an exploration of the forms redemption may take. The plot grips and surprises. Miller’s prose remains poetic and taut, with an eye for the telling detail...And he excels at creating characters who are defined, but not limited, by a specific time and place, not just Lacroix, Calley and Medina but the minor players too. Historical or otherwise, this is fiction — storytelling — at its best.
Andrew Miller has some nerve. Nerve in the sense of both courage and cheek, for daring to write historical fiction that refuses to have anything to do with the stylistic experiments of the last hundred years, nor (à la Hilary Mantel) with the pursuit of deep psychological insights and cross-century parallels...It is a four-square adventure story, with an intrepid male hero, a supporting cast of women who are either meekly servile or scrabbling rather prettily at the bars of convention, landscapes that are rugged but essentially benevolent, and a villain who – although allowed some reason for being so – is a real bastard.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a novel of delicately shifting moods, a pastoral comedy and passionate romance story alternating with a blackly menacing thriller. It is also a book of ideas: about male violence, the impact of war and the price of freedom. Miller anchors the action in precise, convincing detail: soldiers live by Le Marchant’s Rules and Regulations for the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry; intellectuals debate the geologist James Hutton and the music of Joseph Haydn. But there’s an intimacy to the way he inhabits his characters that makes them feel modern and natural.