A British cavalry officer fleeing traumatic memories seeks solace on a Scottish island, but his new refuge may not be remote enough to let him escape a dangerous enemy.
When Capt. John Lacroix returns from the Napoleonic wars in Spain to his Somerset estate, he is broken in body and spirit. It is 1809, and the evacuation of retreating British forces from the port of Corunna is a humiliating defeat. “None of this has the look of victory,” says the doctor treating him. As Nell, the housekeeper, tends his wounds, Lacroix slowly heals physically. But he refuses to talk about his battlefield experiences, saying only, “The war was very hard on horses, Nell.” When he receives orders to return to his regiment, the young man decides to flee, embarking on a journey north to the remote Hebrides, where he will find healing and love with the free-thinking Emily Frend. Traveling under an assumed name, Lacroix is unaware that Cpl. Calley and Lt. Medina, two soldiers, are in pursuit with secret orders to kill him. Calley, who identified Lacroix as the officer responsible for an atrocity in a Spanish village, is remorseless in his hunt. By alternating the narrative between Lacroix and his pursuers, Miller (The Crossing, 2017, etc.) effectively ratchets up the tension and suspense. With a less-skilled writer, naming characters after the officers and soldiers charged in the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam could have come across as a ham-fisted approach, but it’s appropriately chilling in this melancholy portrait of war, culpability, and redemption. The luscious prose (“the mud was liquid clay”) adds to the mood, and Miller’s precise historical details (a horn spoon tucked into an apron pocket) feel organic and real; the author keeps his research well hidden. The dazzling, ambiguous ending will fodder plenty of book-club debate.
Miller is in fine form here, mixing an unforgettable cat-and-mouse chase with a moving love story.