- Hodder & Stoughton General Division
- Publication Date:
- 05 January 2012
- Historical Fiction
Showing 1-4 out of 20 reviews. Previous | Next
This is already one of my favourite books of all time, and I am only a quartet of the way in.
A young engineer accepts the job of emptying an ancient, overflowing cemetery in late 19th-century Paris. The grisly project has unforeseen consequences for the individuals involved. This haunting novel, based on a true-to-life story of urban renewal, possesses a strong sense of place.Readalikes: Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks
Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a modern man, well-versed in Voltaire and ready to leave his peasant upbringing behind. Eager to display his engineering talents, he meets the minister at Versailles to receive his first significant appointment. Confident, composed, although a bit cocky, he really can’t foresee any challenge his enlightened education can’t overcome. But, all his plans of illustrious success are somewhat hampered by the assignment he receives, one that is couched in a veiled threat. His job will be to demolish a dangerously aged Medieval church as well as removing the entire cemetery attached to it, on the Rue de Les Innocents. The minister explains,"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.Removed?Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it."Given such a grotesque assignment, he quickly realizes that the challenge lies in more than just removing bodies. The task itself is monumental, given the crowded city and the few who wish to work on such a gory task. Baratte hesitates to begin, and as he settles in to his new job, he finds avoidance is his first impulse. What better time to buy a new suit and get drunk? A fashionable pistachio green suit that is purchased by trading in his father’s dark classic suit is a symbolic gesture that sets the scene for his new undertaking, and his new pal Armand, organ player at the Church, shows him exactly what and how to drink in order to forget the dead he’ll soon be faced with.Thus, the novel begins, with Baratte and Armand and several other characters dealing with the sentimental and awkward removal of a beloved church. Each character is fully developed, and fascinating in the way they interact. Besides the intriguing plot, just seeing the ensemble of unlikely individuals become close-knit among grave circumstances makes the narrative surprisingly enjoyable. Virtually everyone changes in some way, and none more than Baratte."But are his ambitions what they were? Are they, for example, less ambitious? And if so, what has replaced them? Nothing heroic, it seems. Nothing to brag of. A desire to start again, more honestly. To test each idea in the light of experience. To stand as firmly as he can in the world’s fabulous dirt; live among uncertainty, mess, beauty. Live bravely if possible. Bravery will be necessary, he has no doubt of that. The courage to act. The courage to refuse. "Given his thoughts above, you may imagine the fate of the pistachio suit.The story is unique and clever, and astonishingly fast-paced. I’m not normally a fan of the historical fiction genre, and I’m completely unfamiliar with this period in French history, but I was completely absorbed. However, I have to mention, in hopes of assisting others, that some reviews of the book (most notably the New York Times) seem to imply a supernatural element, of vampires and some sort of wolf-spirit. I didn’t get that at all. One strong wind was described as howling like a wolf, but that’s it. Two well-preserved bodies are inexplicably uncovered in the removal, but no indication or allusion is made to them of being vampires. So, while there is madness and community resistance to Baratte’s assignment, there’s nothing that feels otherworldly about the story.
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. 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, I liked the way that Miller echoed Victor Hugo in his style when Baratte's former patron is referred to as the 'Compte de S-'.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.
Reviews provided by Librarything.
No reviews here.