Andrew Miller is interested in human failure – specifically “those sudden tests of worth and courage” which, if not passed, can destroy a life, as the exiled Hungarian playwright László Lázár finds in 2001’s Oxygen. Many years ago, a few seconds’ hesitation by Lázár led to his lover’s death, and he’s been trying to reconstruct his idea of who he is ever since. Miller’s novels are often built around such moments of disruption: Oxygen gives us not just Lázár himself, but the ironically named Alec Valentine, who is aware that he is letting down his terminally ill mother through his own incapacity to love. At other times the disruption is a broader failure to connect: in Miller’s 1997 debut, Ingenious Pain, we meet James Dyer, an 18th-century doctor who can’t feel either pain or pleasure, while 2015’s The Crossing features the scientist Maud Stamp (another of Miller’s carefully chosen names), whose blunt sense of purpose translates into a profound emotional isolation from those around her. Most recently Captain John Lacroix, the hero of 2018’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, set during the Napoleonic wars, is tormented by the mistakes he made during the British retreat to Corunna.
Miller’s ninth novel revisits the theme, and it’s handled in a way that is bolder and more exquisitely menacing than anything he’s done before. Stephen Rose is a former soldier and recovering alcoholic who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Thirty years later he’s living quietly in Somerset, trying to establish a relationship with his daughter, Maggie, whose upbringing he missed. He is in infrequent contact with Maggie’s mother, Evie (the memory of their youthful love affair is, as her name suggests, a lost Eden). Stephen has a job at a garden centre called Plant World: plants and gardens are important in a story that draws on the work of the Romantic poets in a way that’s unabashedly allusive, but entirely Miller’s own.
This Rose is, in William Blake’s phrase, sick. He has a canker, an invisible “slow worm” of regret, that is consuming his life. Like Lacroix, he is crucified by the memory of a particular failure of judgment: in this case, an incident that took place in Ardoyne, north Belfast, in the distant summer of 1982, when he was a new recruit to the British army. The question of what exactly happened that day (there are conscious echoes of Bloody Sunday here) is resurrected when he receives a summons to an inquiry in Belfast. Instead of responding immediately, he begins to write a version of his past for Maggie that’s both a confession and a love letter. It’s also a peculiarly moving account of casual youthful error, and of the hell that such errors can send us to. When Stephen says that the document he is writing seems like “a record of madness”, we believe him.
Miller delineates the details of life in an urban barracks: the boredom, the pointless routine, the obsessive pursuit of order as a bulwark against introspection. He conjures the fear and the confusion of being out on patrol, “everything on you jangling, shifting, chafing, your breath coming hard”, with extraordinary immediacy. But he’s equally good at evoking its opposite, the dream of a pastoral escape, in the shape of the “damp, untidy acre of Somerset” where Stephen grows up and to which he retreats after the disaster of Belfast. For a while Stephen lives rough beneath apple trees, though this period is never sentimentalised (when a letter from Evie about their daughter doesn’t reach him, he remarks dryly: “Even in Somerset letters are not delivered to orchards”). We intuit that he might achieve redemption in this bucolic setting when he reads a biography of “the country poet John Clare” to his dying father, a countryman and lifelong Quaker. Clare, you’ll remember, had spells of extraordinary poetic lucidity, in between going periodically mad.
So, what happened in Belfast? What did Stephen do? The revelation, when it comes, is unsensational: a pitiful, inadvertent atrocity, and all the more shocking for that. The title of The Slowworm’s Song is taken from an image in Basil Bunting’s poem Briggflatts, but the novel sits far closer to Clare’s ecstatic apprehension of the beauty and terror at the heart of the created world, and shares that poet’s awareness of the world’s relentless drive to renew itself. “I have been drenched, been drunk,” Stephen says, as Clare himself might have, “been right at the edge of what I could bear, and at times filled with a sort of simple hopefulness that seems to flow out of hedgerows and from the tips of grass.”
At the level of the sentence, the writing is near perfect. But the novel’s excellence goes far beyond this. There’s a depth and a sweetness, a gravity, to Stephen’s simplest observations, such as his remark, of his dying father stumbling across the landing – “I know the creak of his sandals, the clicking of the little bones in his ankles” – that sets it apart. Miller is awake to the dreadful ordinariness of death (and life), in all its manifestations, and all its narrative forms. There are kinds of elective silence that shut down meaning, and others – the Quaker kind, perhaps – that open it up. As Stephen’s rehab counsellor tells him: “We have to be careful not to get trapped in our own stories. That’s one of the things we can learn.”
Though the truth is elusive, it’s not impossible to discover it. “Are the men here not already real? Am I not?” Stephen asks after a rehab therapy session in which he’s challenged to access his “real” self. It’s all real, and all fictional, gorgeously so. You read what might have been a perfectly commonplace story of failure and redemption with your pulse racing, all your senses awake. Miller’s last novel didn’t make the Booker list, but this restrained, beautifully written apologia for our common frailty surely should.
• Elizabeth Lowry’s novel The Chosen will be published by Riverrun in April. The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller is published by Sceptre (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.