In 1785, a young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is tasked with purifying the cemetery of Les Innocents off the Rue St Denis in Paris. The ground is so full of corpses that plants no longer grow, the bodies s no longer rot and the air is thick with the scent of putrefying human flesh, a scent which taints the breath of those who live nearby. The mass graves which in heavy rain have burst into the cellars of neighbouring homes will need to be exhumed, and the King’s Minister has tasked him with dismantling the Church.
Of course, Barrate’s task will not be easy. Though it has been closed for five years, the Church is an icon to the residents who live around it; their family members and friends are buried in the grounds and of course such a scheme is met with some strong opposition. Others, see the potential benefits of the scheme, but this is problematic too, as more zealous supporters see the cleansing as a symbol of the way forward, and revolutionary messages begin popping up all over Paris.
Pure by Andrew Miller won the 2011 Costa Book of The Year. I enjoyed it well enough, but it felt weirdly restrained and was a little unsatisfactory as a result. I think that this might have been because I expected more from it. With all the hints at revolution and the course of the future, I was waiting for something truly revolutionary to happen but it didn’t. At times it was sad and horrible, but this seemed to be brushed away and treated as incidental. It was a pity, because the concept had so much potential and despite all the death and dismemberment, it felt a little bland.
The characterisation was restricted too. The entire novel wasted time focussing on Barrate’s self doubt- which came to little- and Armand’s subversiveness- which came to nothing. The more interesting characters were briefly outlined but not developed. I would have liked a more expansive treatment of the fates of Jeanne or Ziguette, it felt like they were just brushed under the carpet to focus on the anticlimactic ending of the novel in which Barrate (who was too indecisive and insipid for me to believe he was an ambitious man who’d raised himself from poverty) improbably rides off into the sunset with Heloise (who seemed to have more going for her than that).
Have you read Pure by Andrew Miller? What did you think?