Pure by Andrew Miller
Initially I approached this book with some caution. The only other Andrew Miller novel I’d read many years before was Ingenious Pain, and although I could see that it was a great novel, I did find it hard going at the time. The premise of his latest though was so attractive, and by the second chapter I was hooked on this rather original historical novel.
Pure is set in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Norman engineer, hired by the King’s offices to oversee the cleansing of an overfilled Parisian cemetery, that is poisoning the earth and air all around it. The Minister, safely esconced at Versailles, outlines the job …
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Some days I believe I can smell it from here.’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers, but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘It is to be removed.’
‘Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Decent, habitable. Pure.’ ‘Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.’
‘And the … occupants, my lord?’
‘Disposed of. Every last bone. It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness. …’
Nice job eh? Jean-Baptiste heads off into Paris, where lodgings have been set up with a local family overlooking the cemetery. He soon makes friends with Armand, the church organist, and finds that everything smells better after a brandy or two. He contacts his colleague from his last job at the mines at Valenciennes – Lecoeur will bring a team of miners to Paris to dig out the cemetery. Jeanne, the teenaged grand-daughter of the sexton will look after the men – indeed most of them grow to love her as their own daughter.
All is set and the excavation is underway. Some doctors arrive, including one Dr Guillotin – yes! He is there to examine the bones, but his presence will prove necessary on many occasions over the following months – injury, illness, attempted murder, rape, suicide – everything will happen to those involved on this job. But it’s not all bad, for Jean-Baptiste will also find love in an unexpected place.
The story is entirely that of Jean Baptiste – he is present on every page. He’s conscientious, and good to his men, but can be persuaded to let his hair down occasionally. The young engineer is a very likeable hero and an interesting young man. In between the gruelling work to reclaim the ground from the cemetery, we do get glimpses of the bustling markets and streets around the Les Halles area of Paris where the novel is set, and even radical murmurings. The historical detail is both rich and absolutely spot on.
The major business of the novel is the job in hand though. In this respect, (with my tongue in my cheek slightly), it is the opposite of Ken Follett’s enjoyable blockbuster novel The Pillars of the Earth, in which a cathedral is built over generations rather, than removed in a year. In both, however, the work is the star – and it was actually fascinating to read.
I will have to re-read Ingenious Pain and catch up on others of Miller’s backlist – I do have most of them in the TBR, as I enjoyed Pure very much indeed. This was a brilliant historical novel with literary nous, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it as a Booker longlist contender. (9/10)
For another view, see what Jackie at Farm Lane Books thought of it.
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My copy was provided by Amazon Vine.
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Pureby Andrew Miller. Pub Sceptre, June 2011, Hardback 352 pages.
Ingenious Painby Andrew Miller
The Pillars of the Earthby Ken Follett