Set in Paris in 1785, Jean-Baptiste Barrate, an engineer from Normandy, is summoned to Versailles and is offered a commission to exhume the inhabitants of the very overcrowded, and now closed, cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. In doing so it is hoped that it will purify the stench that has been arising and permeating everything from people’s clothes, to the air and even the people’s breath who live in the local district.
Jean-Baptiste accepts the commission but not without some reservations. As a young man, in his late 20s, his experience of life, especially of people, is limited. He is confident of his trade but lacks the leadership of men so he relies heavily on his old friend, Lecoeur, and his new acquaintance, Armand de Saint-Méard.
Through a serious of dramas such as rape, suicide and physical attacks, the novel depicts life in Paris just before the Revolution. The characters are gently woven into the story, as is the acceptance of the conditions and the dramas that occur. Whilst set at the same time, there is little of this book that can be compared with the Tale of Two Cities, other than they both describe life before the Revolution, however Miller’s characters are quieter and not so caricaturised as those of Dickens. There is never any hint of the impending Revolution, the story is told in the present tense and it leaves the future to what it will be. Nobody thinks that far ahead, they are all absorbed in their daily lives.
Pure is a story told very gently, although dramas happen, little about the book could be called dramatic. There are certainly elements of cause and effect but the effect is quiet. There are hardly any signs of remorse or retribution, just an acceptance of fate.
Brilliantly written, the description of the smell is so vivid that you can’t help but smell it yourself, and it is very cleverly crafted, the only possible criticism could come from Miller’s use of the metaphorical names of his characters: Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist), the man who cleanses and purifies Paris. Héloïse Godard, (hell God) the local whore only who almost transforms to become a saint. Jean-Baptiste’s old friend Lecoeur (the heart) may be an inference to the Sacré-Cœur. Two other names that raise an eyebrow are Dr Guillotin and Armand de Saint-Méard. But if you can put that to one side and allow the author his bit of fun, then you’ll understand why this book won the Costa Coffee Best Novel of 2011.
Alison OReilly 13/2/2012