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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

This week, a new book, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free written by Andrew Miller, published in 2019. I first read it earlier this year, can’t remember how I heard about it, but the book had excellent reviews. Mr. Miller is the author of seven other novels. The time the story is set in, Napoleonic England, had an interest for me, as I’d been working on my own novel from this period.

Now is a very different beastie than the other books I’ve been writing about, particularly in terms of narrative structure. Although written recently, the author makes use of the third-person omniscient narrator, the “all-seeing” eye and ear who can not only travel mysteriously between the inner, subjective worlds of the various characters, but also describe settings and back story to the reader. Yet this narrator is hidden, not at all like the voluble fellow of A Sport and a Pastime, who is an “I,” the incarnate storyteller, an entity inside the story.

(Whiny voice—Hey! Why’d you start putting book titles in italics instead of using quotation marks?)

Let’s move on to a definition.

“The third person omniscient point of view is the most open and flexible POV available to writers. As the name implies, an omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…the narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.”

A key distinction is that the omniscient narrator is outside the story and knows the outcome. The first sentence of Now reveals the narrator’s presence. “It came through lanes crazy with rain, its sides slabbed with mud, its wheels throwing arcs of mud behind it.” Pretty nice prose, by the way. However, “someone” is telling the reader this information. As readers, we are so used to this sort of thing, we hardly think about it, but it is the storytelling “voice.”

The first character the narrator “inhabits’ is the driver of a carriage (undoubtedly a post chaise) identified as the postilion. The narrator describes what this man is doing as well as his thoughts and feelings, making generous use of free indirect style, that blurring of the omniscient narrator and the character’s voice. “If he were to be thrown here! Thrown and bones cracked!” as opposed to “If I were to be thrown here,” he said. Does this presence of free indirect style move the omniscient narrator more “inside” the story? Perhaps, my friend. In a sense, the narrator changes from exhibiting a rather dispassionate showing of the tale to an expression of concern. “It” is now an entity who, along with the character, is alarmed by the story’s action.

We also move into the character’s consciousness, but never as an “I.” “Here the road turned and descended—he could sense it more than see it—and he sat, pushed at by the rain…”

Then, after a suspenseful search, the driver finds the house he is seeking. A woman answers the door, yet the scene remains within the postilion’s point of view. But the story is not about the postilion, and the narrator leaps to the consciousness of the woman. “She looked at the postilion, took proper notice of him for the first time. He wasn’t from the village or the next village or the next, though she might have seen him somewhere…” My point here is that the narrator describes not only the outward behavior of the characters but their inner thoughts and appraisals as well. If one was filming a documentary about this postilion delivering an unconscious man to a remote house (that’s what he’s doing), the only way to indicate what the people were thinking would be to use a narrator who could say such things as “The postilion is frightened by the storm,” or “The woman thinks the postilion could be familiar.” Happily, in this book, we have the busy narrator who can flit around from character to character and show this stuff.

Then it is the local doctor who appears. “The doctor came in the afternoon…This last winter he had noted the stiffening of his joints, pain at times in both knees, in the deep places of his hips.” He attends to the unconscious man, now identified as John Lacroix.

Then a return to the housekeeper, who is named as Nell. “Each day she bathed his feet with the solution of brimstone…which she knew to be good for wounds.” There is a long section in which John Lacroix is observed and described through the housekeeper’s eyes.

In fact, it is not till page forty-five of the paperback edition, that the narrator enters the consciousness of the book’s protagonist, John Lacroix. Up to that point, he is a constant presence, but seen through others’ eyes. It would be possible to begin reading the book, and conclude that the story was about Nell, the housekeeper, since she is the main consciousness in the first forty-five pages. But John Lacroix is central, the story she and the others tell is about him. There is mystery as to his identity and situation. There is exposition about him, his going off to war.

The omniscient narrator tells the story. So is the omniscient narrator the same as the implied author we’ve talked about before?

No, best beloved. Let’s get into that another time.


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