England / Spain
Andrew Miller is a Costa award-winning author and this is another piece of literary creation that some will love, others not so much.
The year is 1809 and John Lacroix is brought back to his family home, a large manor house in Somerset that is populated by the housekeeper and a dog, more dead than alive having been severely injured in the retreat from Spain back into Portugal. Nursed back to life by the housekeeper, the introverted Lacroix gradually regains his strength but is unsettled, especially when a former army colleague visits and encourages him to return to the barracks with a view to returning to Spain. A trip away, far away to the islands of Scotland, is his plan, to run away from the army and the darkness that lurks in his mind, a half-formed impression of some terror that he can't face.
Meanwhile, in Lisbon, Calley, a British soldier who witnessed an atrocity in a small Spanish village, who also happens to be brutish and somewhat of a thug, is sent to England with the more dapper Spanish officer, Medina, to track down and kill the man deemed responsible for the atrocity: Lacroix.
Is Lacroix a scapegoat for the events in that Spanish village, a random English officer who will serve his country better by dying for it than fighting for it? Or is the agonising memory of Spain and the massacre at the village one and the same?
Being literary, the language of this novel is a delight. The descriptions are vivid and fresh, nothing hackneyed or over-used here. And the characters are distinct, Lacroix rather laughs at himself because it is easier than taking himself seriously, Calley is just the right side of a criminal to suit the British Army, and Medina has enough gravitas to avoid slipping into some caricature of a Spaniard adrift in a country where the language and customs often escape him. Indeed, the plot in its barest form could easily have come from the pen of Bernard Cornwell (and in some elements, did) with Sharpe the main character searching for a quiet life but with the war hot on his heels. But that is about where the similarities end.
For this is literary, and the setting is secondary to the language and the themes of life and death, love and war. The characters are delicately drawn, slightly in soft focus so they are just out of reach, the edges smoothed by the intricate language so they are not quite real.
The attention to detail makes this a long read. I read the eBook but the physical book is over 400 pages, and none of them race away with you. It is not a page turner. There is tension, but you feel that it will wait for you, there's no urgency. Yes, we'd like to know how Calley and Medina are going to trace Lacroix beyond Bristol, but you feel that they are happy to wait for you finish the washing up before they continue on their journey.
This is undoubtedly an accomplished novel filled with accurate historical detail and a plot that works, but it is slow, it is ethereal in places. The war in Spain is a backdrop, not a living part of the novel, and it could therefore be set in any similar conflict. The author did not set out to write a novel about the Peninsula War, but about a man exploring himself after a devastating event. It works, and it works well, but don't pick it up thinking you've found a replacement for Richard Sharpe.
© Louise Adam
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