Around ten years ago, the British writer Andrew Miller found himself in something of a crisis. Until then, his career had been a pretty gilded one. His first novel, Ingenious Pain (1997), set in the eighteenth century, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award—worth €100,000—from a shortlist that included Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The five novels that followed, three of them also historical, were generally well received, with Oxygen (2001) shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Pure (2011) winning the Costa Book of the Year Award (for which—controversially for Britain’s more high-minded critics—novels, children’s books, biographies, and poetry were pitted against one another).*
By that stage, Miller was firmly established as one of Britain’s most respected novelists, if maybe not one of the hippest: his books were admired for such old-school virtues as well-crafted sentences, psychologically perceptive characterization, sure-footed storytelling, and a satisfying blend of intellectual and emotional weight. All of which, it appears, contributed to his feeling of crisis. As he later explained, while he’d still “believed in fiction as a uniquely powerful way of speaking the truth about experience,” now
there was something else going on, a chilly countercurrent, a hard-to-pin-down sense of frustration that seemed to organise itself around the idea that fiction…had become more competent than interesting, more decorative than urgent, more conventional than otherwise.
“I had precisely the same difficulty with my own work,” Miller went on. “Was this writer’s block? Or was it a hazy recognition that there might be some problem with ‘traditional narrative’?” To drive the point home, he quoted Iris Murdoch’s 1961 call for a renewed sense of “the opacity of persons” and Tim Parks’s verdict that “so many writers now are able to produce passable imitations of our much-celebrated nineteenth-century novels…. Their very facility becomes an obstacle to exploring some more satisfactory form.”
Miller’s response was to write what he’s since called his “crazy novel.” The Crossing (2015) has a protagonist, Maud, so opaque that it’s impossible for anybody, including the reader, to know what she’s thinking. Equally inscrutable is the book’s far-from-traditional narrative, in which, rather than one thing leading neatly to another as in his earlier fiction (but perhaps not as in life), we get a succession of apparently arbitrary events.
In the first half, Maud meets a nice-enough man, lives with him, has a child, and suffers a serious domestic tragedy—all without any obvious emotional response. In the second, she suddenly sails solo across the Atlantic, where the nautical terms go into somewhat punishing overdrive. (“She furls the jib…and drops two reefs’ worth of mainsail into the lazy jacks.”) Landing in an unspecified part of South America, she comes across fourteen children living in a fundamentalist Christian community founded by a US evangelist who’s gone back to Alabama, leaving them with a strict social hierarchy and a box of deadly snakes to handle during religious rites. After a few weeks, having failed to persuade the children of the truths of Darwinism, Maud hops a passing train and disappears.
But, as it turned out, The Crossing didn’t represent a bold new direction for Miller’s fiction so much as a brief vacation—or even just something he had to get out of his system. “I am back now!” he declared in an interview promoting his next book, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018), which was not only his most passable imitation of our much-celebrated nineteenth-century novels so far—a Robert Louis Stevenson–style adventure yarn set in a thoroughly imagined Britain of 1809—but also triumphantly proved that there was life in the old form yet. Here, you felt, was a writer playing again to his old-school strengths.
The book opens with the injured Captain John Lacroix returning home to southern England from fighting Napoleon in the Peninsular War. Once recovered, he resists the army’s requests to go back to the fighting and heads off instead to collect the music of the Scottish islands. And it’s just as well he does—because a military hearing in Lisbon has established that Lacroix was the leader of a group of soldiers who carried out a civilian massacre in the Spanish village of Morales. To placate their Spanish allies, the British have agreed that he must be executed, and so send a Corporal Calley to Lacroix’s house to dispatch him, with a Spaniard named Medina acting as a witness. By then, it’s already apparent that Calley was himself an enthusiastic participant in the massacre, but his villainy becomes ever more deep-dyed as he violently extracts information from anybody unlucky enough to know anything about Lacroix’s journey northward.
The fact that these characters have the names of soldiers involved in the 1968 My Lai massacre is among the more pointed illustrations of Miller’s idea that historical novels should look “Janus-like…both to the past and to the present.” Meanwhile, the novel also confirms one of the central themes of Miller’s work—and possibly its central contradiction.
Throughout the book, Lacroix is haunted by what happened in Morales, but without being able to quite face, articulate, or maybe even remember exactly what did. When he sets off for Scotland, he thinks that if he could gather the last year of his life into “an account of himself that would…be coherent,” it might make sense again. The project, though, seems doomed. By the time he’s approaching the islands, he still can’t “stop the thinking,” but realizes that “in his effort to understand he had worn language thin but made it no sharper.” Yet would finding a clear narrative make a difference anyway? “What I have done…I cannot make good, and telling it changes nothing.”
In virtually all of Miller’s novels, the protagonists are in a similarly intractable predicament. A past experience has derailed them so comprehensively that they’re stuck inside “some interminable aftermath”—unable to change what’s happened, of course; unable to forget it, however much they’d like to; unable to shake off the belief that if only they could turn it into a coherent story (which they can’t), their lives might return to how they were (which they can’t either).
Or at least that’s the theory—a theory Miller has propounded regularly in interviews. “I’m interested in the way we know so little of what we are,” he said in 2011, and in “this stubborn fantasy you can just start again.” In 2018 his summary of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free was that “an event happens, you are caught up in it. And then what? How do you live with any of this stuff?” Strangely, however, this theoretical underpinning is not matched by what happens at the end of the books. There, the intractability abruptly dissolves and the “interminable aftermath” terminates, as the protagonists achieve the kind of self-understanding that both they and Miller had so convincingly dismissed as impossible.
Thus when Emily, the woman Lacroix has fallen in love with on a Scottish island, discovers that he’s been going under the false name of John Lovall and asks him to tell her the truth about his life, he responds with a story that couldn’t be more coherent—an eleven-page account, in immaculate prose, of exactly what happened in Morales: how he’d sheltered in an abandoned house and ignored the urgent news from a young soldier, Thompson, that “the others had gone berserk.” (Not coincidentally, the man credited with stopping the My Lai massacre was the helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson.) Only later did he emerge to see the results of the violence he knows he should have prevented.
His conviction that telling the story wouldn’t do any good proves as unfounded as the one about how he could never tell it at all. “But I do not feel disgraced by knowing you,” Emily replies. “Nor do I wish to be free of you. I began to love you as John Lovall. I shall love you still as John Lacroix.” Once Calley is safely killed, we last see the couple rowing out to board a ship bound for Canada, with Emily speaking the book’s title as the last line, “an expression of deepest joy” on her face. In other words, as stubborn fantasies go, the idea that you can just start again mightn’t be wholly fantastical after all.
So what on earth’s going on with the apparent failure of Miller’s novels to practice what both he and they preach? One possibility is that the endings are intended to be more ambivalent than they might appear. A challenge with Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, he has said, was to make that last line “not entirely ironic.” In which case, his mission was definitely accomplished, the problem being that the line felt so unironic as to contradict what had come before. And this, in turn, raises another possibility: that Miller might have been onto something after all when he worried about the distorting effect of traditional narrative on his fiction—because its momentum, its drive toward a proper resolution, ultimately undermines the intractability of which he’s theoretically in favor. It doesn’t help that he’s so good at it.
In Miller’s new novel these tendencies are, if anything, more marked than ever. The Slowworm’s Song is the first he has written in the first person, but otherwise he’s on familiar ground as the narrator, a recovering alcoholic named Stephen Rose, neatly explains why he can’t neatly explain his life, and then neatly explains it anyway.
The book, indeed, could be read as a modern-day version of Now We Shall Be Entirely Free—which in Miller’s work also means a less rollicking one. As he’s said himself, his historical fiction tends to have “an extravagance” not found in his “stiller” contemporary novels. And this is certainly true of The Slowworm’s Song, the title of which is taken from Basil Bunting’s poem “Briggflatts,” where the song in question is in praise of contemplation. Here the picaresque nineteenth-century adventures of his previous book are replaced by the tale of a fifty-one-year-old man in 2011 buying a large notepad and trying to write a long account of himself for his twenty-six-year-old daughter, Maggie. She has moved near him, in the English West Country, and they have nervously resumed contact after a long estrangement.
There is, however, another reason why Stephen has started writing the account now. The novel begins with a letter arriving from Belfast asking him to give evidence to a commission investigating “the events of the summer of 1982,” when the violence in the city was particularly intense. At this early stage, in the customary Miller way, Stephen is unable to spell out “the unfixable thing” that haunts him—not least because there’s little chance of “making sense of it all”—but there are increasing hints that while serving in Belfast as a British soldier he was involved in one of the darker events under investigation.
The Slowworm’s Song offers plenty to admire—thanks, inevitably, to its strong traditional narrative. As Miller has said, around 250,000 ordinary British soldiers served in Northern Ireland during the coyly named Troubles. Yet their perspective has never featured much in the vast amount of fiction on the subject. Now Miller provides it, powerfully capturing the fear of often bewildered young men faced with “passionate hating” from people whose history they don’t know anything about.
As he does so, he exhibits his usual attention to striking detail. We learn, for instance, that for training purposes the British army built a replica of a Northern Irish town in the German countryside, complete with shops, a church, and a pub called Murphy’s. Stephen writes feelingly about the envy that pierced him and his colleagues when, in that same year of 1982, British soldiers returned from the Falklands War to the type of hero’s welcome that would never await those being shot at in Belfast.
That perspective also allows for some of the Janus-faced history writing that Miller prizes. By 2011, Stephen argues, the narrative of the Troubles has become essentially “pro-Nationalist,” based on the idea of “the Nationalist community as a people…oppressed and provoked over many years.” There’s “lots of reasons for that,” he acknowledges. “The main one is that it’s true. But it may also be that Nationalists have…a clearer story, one they’re good at telling.” Looking back, he remembers how much safer British soldiers felt in neighborhoods belonging to “the others—people holding on to a flag not much valued on the [British] mainland, who ran the police force, government, business,” and who these days have “a harder sell.”
He’s also keen to remind his daughter (and presumably us) of the largely forgotten fact that British soldiers were initially sent to Northern Ireland to protect a grateful Catholic population from Loyalist attacks. But then came the heavy-handed counterterrorism measures that turned the British government into an inadvertent recruiting arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). And yet it’s the young soldiers left to deal with the mess who now appear to be bearing the blame, while the former terrorists are part of Northern Ireland’s administration: “They rise and rise and nobody dares whisper car-bomb or knee-capping or sectarian murder to them…. Every day they’re quietly rewriting history.” In this context, Stephen defiantly suggests, the commission’s desire to “set the truth free” is a slogan pitched somewhere between the wishful, the meaningless, and the deliberately false.
But when it comes to the incident that has left Stephen in another Milleresque “interminable aftermath,” all defiance fades away. Naturally, he does circle around it for much of the book, filling us in on his pre-army youth as the son of a gentle Quaker widower—and on his wildly unmoored life afterward, especially once he’d split from Maggie’s mother, Evie. (“On some days…I drank seven litres of wine.”) Nonetheless, when the moment finally comes, Stephen—like Lacroix before him—explains precisely what happened clearly and at an impressive length. (In this case, twenty eloquent pages.)
On August 4, 1982, when he was twenty-one, his unit raided a working-class Catholic area of Belfast. Stephen’s job was to stand in an alley behind a house and challenge anybody who came out the back door. The person who did was a teenage boy with what looked like something suspicious in his hand. He made a run for it; Stephen shot and killed him.
After the shooting, Stephen was taken in for questioning—but not of the ferocious kind. Instead, his interrogators helped him get his story straight “for my sake and for the sake of the army”: that he’d believed his life was in danger and “had every right to do as I did.” He was never charged, merely sent back to Germany, where he started his heavy drinking and applied for a discharge. “No difficulties,” he notes dryly, “were put in my way.”
Even after he becomes the latest Miller protagonist to make a single-leap escape from intractable inarticulacy to lucidity, there is one thing Stephen can’t be completely lucid about—although he is completely lucid as to why. Having “examined my conscience more than most,” he’s still unsure what his intentions were as he fired the shot. “To sift your intentions is hard,” he explains—but that doesn’t prevent him from having a good go at it. Much sifting later, his best guess is that he acted through a mixture of panic, adrenaline, and fear of letting his unit down. But, he scrupulously wonders, “in some fold of the brain” might there have also been an element of payback for an atrocity of the kind that the commission is not so interested in, now that the rewriting of history is well underway? A few weeks before, eleven British soldiers had been killed when the IRA detonated two bombs in London parks, one under a bandstand where a military band was playing hits from Oliver!
Either way, Stephen refuses to accept the army’s verdict of his blamelessness. Nor, drunk or sober, has he ever had the dead boy out of his thoughts for long. “Maggie,” he writes as the account of the shooting ends,
[his] name was Francis Harkin. It’s taken me a while to get that down, hasn’t it?… He’d be forty-seven now…. He’d remember, of course, the day the house was searched, his wild decision to run…. He’d remember it and shake his head. Thank Christ all that’s over.
Soon afterward Stephen lays down his pen, with the feeling that “at great length and with many hours of work I’ve somehow managed to miss it all”—a feeling so obviously mistaken that it comes across rather as if he, Miller, or both have had a belated remembrance of their jointly held notion about the impossibility of accurate memories and coherent storytelling.
Unlike Lacroix’s, Stephen’s confession doesn’t bring immediate results. When he finishes writing it, he goes on a bender that nearly kills him. Fortunately, he’s found by a kindly neighbor, Annie, lying under an aspen tree in his garden, taken to the hospital, and from there to rehab. Again, Miller’s way with immersive detail ensures that the rehab section plunges us deep into Stephen’s continuing PTSD and provides several striking set pieces about the other patients. Yet there’s never much doubt that he’ll recover, partly because he is the one writing so fluently about the experience, and partly because at the start of the novel he’d mentioned that, according to folklore, a crown of aspen leaves “allows you to enter the underworld and return safely.” (In a further symbolic hint that he will emerge from hellishness, the rehab center is named Virgil House.)
Nevertheless, nothing quite prepares us for the blizzard of happy endings that follows. When Stephen arrives home from rehab, Evie shows up, having clearly forgiven him for destroying their relationship. Maggie, too, is soon reconciled, with father and daughter having a conversation in which, to their shared surprise, they find that “some of what we’d meant to say, perhaps even the most important things, didn’t need saying any more.” It’s implied that he and Annie will soon be an item, and as everyone says goodbye after a celebratory lunch (at which he can “see nothing but happiness” in Maggie’s face), he doesn’t “know when that hallway has ever seen so much kissing and hugging.”
But even then the fixing of “the unfixable thing” isn’t over. Stephen finally agrees to attend a meeting of the commission, and Maggie lovingly accompanies him to Belfast, where he finds a city that “had turned its back on the past, on that past, and done it pretty thoroughly.” True, walking the Catholic areas he once patrolled, Stephen wonders if the Troubles could return—and the novel does finish minutes before he’s due to testify, with Francis Harkin’s sister present. Yet if this is an attempt to introduce a note of ambivalence, it feels a rather half-hearted one that does little to banish the prevailing sense of joy and triumph.
Which just leaves the question of that first-person narration. As I noted, this is the first time Miller has tried it—and, as he has admitted, “it may be the last. I found it a struggle. And I still feel unsure about the voice, whether I pitched it [right]” for someone who’s “not a highly educated man.” It’s difficult to disagree with his misgivings. Miller does throw in the occasional remark that might be expected from a fifty-one-year-old ex-soldier who didn’t go to college. (“He was mixed race, or however you’re supposed to say that.”) Most of the time, though, Stephen’s prose has all the elegance and alertness to linguistic aesthetics of a literary novelist not unlike, say, Andrew Miller. (“Everybody got out—debussed in the unlovely language of the army.”)
Odder still, when speaking of those misgivings, Miller went on to explain that “normally, I’m like a handheld camera, I can move around, I can be right up close. And I like that, it’s much better.” So why do something that, by the logic of his own admission, is much worse? The answer, I’d suggest, is linked to that longstanding (and briefly crisis-inducing) conflict in Miller’s work between theory and practice, between his doubts about traditional narrative and how it’s always the strongest element of his fiction, even when his inability to resist it undercuts his own most persistent themes. This is, it seems, a writer who—in a way not unknown in the profession—remains suspicious of his own strengths.
Before Costa Coffee, the award’s sponsor was the Whitbread brewing and hospitality company, whose bluff chairman took a no-nonsense line on the idea that you can’t compare such different genres. “It’s simple,” he said. “They do it every year at Crufts”—Britain’s biggest dog show. ↩