Book review: ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller

Author: Andrew Miller

Published: 2011

Paris in 1785 seems, in hindsight, like a dangerous place to be. On the brink of revolution and positively seething with new and radical ideas, while still clinging to the decadence of the past, it’s a maelstrom of a city. Into the middle of it comes a young engineer, tasked with the removal and destruction of the Les Innocents cemetery in one district of the city. The cemetery is not only full but overflowing, and it’s here that the story begins.

The young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is an almost accidental protagonist, an outsider unfamiliar with the values and mores of Parisian society; a modern man who values Reason above everything else. His inexperience seems to matter little and the enormous task of ridding the living of the dead falls to him almost by default.

The district surrounding Les Innocents is infected with the odour of death; the smell lingers even in the food and the minds of the citizens; it drives people to madness; and looms large over this dark corner of Paris. To the surprise of both Jean-Baptiste and the reader, the citizens seem very reluctant to part with the cemetery, and yet it must be done; Jean-Baptiste sees it as a way of removing History to make way for the Future.

The novel covers the course of a year and is bookended by Jean-Baptiste’s meeting with an elephant, a symbol of the decadence of the past. The supporting characters who populate the story, even the minor ones, are fleshed out, adding layers to the narrative. Jean-Baptiste the outsider, to whom Paris is like a foreign country, makes friends with ordinary people, miners, masons and reactionaries alike, and ultimately is attracted to another outsider, a prostitute called Heloise.

Over the course of the novel, the narrative twists and turns, examining the place that the dead have among the living, and charting the course of the future through the destruction of the past; above all, we see Jean-Baptiste’s part in this endeavour through the prism of the Reason that he clings to, even when he feels like a failure.

The novel is truly astonishing, incredibly rich in detail (including a lot about cats); the prose is lyrical and poetic, and I found myself drawn into it until I was completely absorbed. ‘Pure’ is well worth a read, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone.

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Sarah Kirkland
About Sarah Kirkland 11 Articles
Short, bespectacled bibliophile who can't function without tea; prone to rambling; erstwhile writer; not smart enough to be on Countdown.