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194 of 202 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First rate novel set in pre revolutionary Paris
Andrew Miller is a writer new to me, but on the evidence of this excellent book I have ordered a number of his other novels to read.

The story is a deceptively simple one concerning a young engineer from Normandy who is charged with the task of overseeing the destruction of the cemetery and church of Les Innocents in Les Halles in Paris in 1785. Miller is...
Published on 3 Mar 2011 by J. Aitken

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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An exhumation tale
I find this a very difficult book to review. In terms of how well written and flowing the story is it deserves a clear 5 stars, but in terms of the depth of the story and how it developed only 2 stars hence an overall 3 (3+) stars.

It was a bit of a shaggy dog story and I was waiting for a leap in an unexpected direction but it just plodded on. Very well...
Published on 8 April 2011 by Alec


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194 of 202 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First rate novel set in pre revolutionary Paris, 3 Mar 2011
By 
J. Aitken (Glasgow Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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Andrew Miller is a writer new to me, but on the evidence of this excellent book I have ordered a number of his other novels to read.

The story is a deceptively simple one concerning a young engineer from Normandy who is charged with the task of overseeing the destruction of the cemetery and church of Les Innocents in Les Halles in Paris in 1785. Miller is brilliant at evoking the period, and peoples his tale with a cast of fully fledged characters whose lives react with the engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. In this year of work Baratte grows as a person and this in itself is worth the price of the book, but where Miller really scores is in his subtle laying out the undercurrents of disquiet and unrest which would eventually lead to bloodshed and revolution. From the dog pissing on the parquet of the neglected Palace of Versailles to the mysterious graffiti which appears threatening change, this is a city on the cusp of something terrible.

The removal of the bones of the dead accompanied by disgruntled priests singing prayers seems a shadow of what will come. All this is accomplished in the most wonderful prose. Miller has an absolute gift for finding the most apposite phrase.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and recommend it very highly indeed.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Destroying the Cemetery of the Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past.", 1 Jun 2012
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) In pristine sentences and uncompromising descriptions, used with great irony, Andrew Miller tells of a young engineer from rural France in 1785 whose job is to empty the overflowing cemetery at the Church of the Innocents in central Paris and rebury all the bones in the catacombs, for sanitary reasons. Set in 1785, just four years before the French Revolution, Miller's main character, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, supervises the emptying of over twenty burial pits located within a small, enclosed area. The work is "both delicate and gross," as the entire neighborhood around the cemetery is putrid after the cemetery's long use (and, more recently, the interment of fifty thousand people in less than a month in mass graves during a plague). The stench permeates everything - buildings, food, and ultimately people, and Baratte has only one year to make it "pure."

Despite the unusual and unsavory subject matter, Miller recreates the human side of the story - to make the reader empathize with Baratte, to see how important the job is to him, to show how he longs for acceptance - and even a job as unsavory this one quickly involves the reader in the story and its historical setting. Details about Paris in this pre-revolutionary time stick in the reader's memory: an elephant, somewhere in Versailles, that exists on Burgundy wine; a revolutionary group devoted to the future, that plasters warnings about the church and aristocracy on walls and buildings; the nearly hopeless lives of the miners Baratte recruits to work on this horrific job; and later, their differences in outlook from the masons he hires for additional on-site work.

Throughout the novel, Miller's descriptive details are unforgettable and often symbolic: a priest described as "a big wingless bat in the dusk"; Parisian theatre-goers "fighting their way through the doors like scummed water draining out of a sink"; a man with eyes "like two black nails hammered into a skull; and an crazed old man "nude as a worm," who begins to howl. The coming revolution is foreshadowed through the eyes of Baratte, whose own new suit of clothes, is not completely comfortable since it smacks of another class. The role of Heloise, a prostitute with a good heart and the intellect of a modern woman, shows how indifferent the court is to the resilience and resourcefulness of, not only women, but of the talented and thwarted men of the country. The characters' attitudes toward life, death, God, and the afterlife echo throughout the novel as bodies are disinterred and cleaned for reburial in the catacombs.

Ultimately, Miller succeeds in making this unlikely subject and its unusual characters both engaging and thought-provoking, requiring the reader to think beyond the limitations of most stories which are set so deep in the past. Baratte himself learns during his year, and he reflects the increasing awareness of a growing segment of the population that the life of the court of Versailles has reached the end of the line. When Baratte finishes his final report for the minister, his return to Versailles is filled with striking parallels and contrasts to the details of his arrival. Miller never overplays his conclusion, however, respecting the reader's ability to fill in some of the blanks that make this novel so memorable. An unusual and beautifully written novel which shines new light on some of the elements which can empower the oppressed and lead to revolution. Mary Whipple
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123 of 132 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones ...., 12 Aug 2011
By 
Annabel Gaskell "gaskella2" (Nr Oxford, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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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 and now closed Parisian cemetery and its church, 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 Miller echoed Victor Hugo's style in describing Baratte's previous patron 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 a church 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.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and atmospheric, with a good pace to the story, 11 Jun 2011
By 
Peter (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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I put off reading this book for a while by my unfounded belief that it would be some sort of fictionalised history of the days leading up to the French Revolution. In fact, it's nothing of the sort. It's a novel set a few years before the French Revolution, with a fine eye for historical detail and for the manners of the time, but it nonetheless has the pacing and character development of a modern novel, and it's very readable.

The stench of the cemetery of l'Innocents near the Pont Neuf in Paris has become unbearable - it is so stuffed full of nearly 1,000 years of burials that there is more rotting flesh and bone than there is soil, and during times of heavy rains neighbouring cellars have collapsed under the weight of water-saturated bodies. A provincial engineer, Baratte, is charged with clearing the cemetery and demolishing the church. This is a quite macabre scanario, but much of the interest also comes from the budding revolutionaries and other bizarre characters that Baratte meets with during the project.

The clearance of the cemeteries is a historical fact, of course - the bones were stacked in abandoned quarries that have become the Catacombes of Paris. In this novel, the themes of decay, of collapse and of the sweeping away of the old orders combine as a sort of extended metaphor for the French monarchy. However, the story is that of the engineer Baratte, who arrives in the city naive and impressionable.

It's a skillfully-executed book, one with a rather strange macabre, fin-de-siecle or (more accurately, I suppose) pre-revolutionary feel.

Update, 25-Jan-2012: I see that Pure has been awarded the Costa Prize. This is well-deserved recognition: congratulations, Andrew Miller!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Foreboding, 26 Jan 2012
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
I agree with the general sentiments offered by other reviewers in terms of the exquisitely crafted prose. However, exquisitely crafted prose can be disappointing after a while, when you realise it is a veil drawn over a lacklustre story. That is not the case here. The real strength here is in the structure and atmosphere, the psychological depth and, above all, the dark sense of foreboding, personal and historical, which Andrew Miller conjures up. This is not a clever-clever book which wears thin; it's intelligent and rings out authentically, in a dark and spellbinding way. And that is a feat generally far beyond mere prose stylists.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a wonderful writer, 2 May 2011
By 
Constant Reader (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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I had not heard of Andrew Miller before, but on the strength of this book I will be ordering his other work. His prose is beautiful and memorable phrases stay with you for good; he has a gift for vivid imagery.

At the bidding of a mysterious government minister, a young engineer - Jean-Baptiste Baratte - spends a year overseeing the dismantling of the church of Les Innocents and the graveyard attached to it. The clearing away of the corruption which poisons the lives of those in its vicinity foreshadows the French Revolution to come, much is necessarily lost in the deluge and those doing the work and innocent bystanders suffer in its execution.

Baratte's emotions are repressed at the beginning of the book, he suffers the torture of self doubt, but gradually develops as a character in the course of the story. His is the only fully developed character in the book, like a photograph where the subject in the foreground is the only one in focus. His inner thoughts, observations and interactions with others drive the story forwards.

Any emotional engagement with the characters is the responsiblity of the reader, this is a spare and cerebral novel where ideas and language are more important. Another review mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro and I'd agree, there is an emotional reticence shared by both writers which gives additional impact and allows the reader to fill in the gaps.

A great writer and highly recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful story, 27 April 2011
By 
PJ Rankine (Wallington, Surrey United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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I don't usually like period pieces but I loved this. Andrew Miller has a wonderful literary style and this book reads like it could have been written in 1785 where it is set. The story takes place in Paris before the revolution when its first flutterings are in the air. Jean Baptiste-Baratte; a young provincial engineer, is invited to Paris to oversee the removal of a decrepit and overflowing cemetery. He is installed in the house of the Monnard family with their strange daughter Ziguette where Marie the maid spies on him through a hole in his ceiling and from where he can see the walls of the cemetery he is charged to destroy. The book is populated with a selection of beautifully drawn characters who all impact on the young engineer's life in different ways as he struggles with his task. The story positively oozes authenticity and demonstrates just how much effort Miller put into his research. Although the 342 pages take place over a whole year there is never any feeling of the story being rushed and there are no loose ends, every thread is skilfully woven and followed to its proper conclusion. Through this excellent piece of fiction Andrew Miller manages to bring history to life.
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An exhumation tale, 8 April 2011
By 
Alec (Letchworth Garden City, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
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I find this a very difficult book to review. In terms of how well written and flowing the story is it deserves a clear 5 stars, but in terms of the depth of the story and how it developed only 2 stars hence an overall 3 (3+) stars.

It was a bit of a shaggy dog story and I was waiting for a leap in an unexpected direction but it just plodded on. Very well written however despite this criticism, just that it did not burst out anywhere special. Key characters were introduced (the minister and his underling) but were not developed further and in the end were missing altogether. There was a bubbling of civil discontent throughout that did not however further impinge on the actual story.
However I was entertained and interested enough to finish the book, it may appeal to others more content with well written prose and less exiting storylines.
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63 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clearing the ground for a new age, 7 Feb 2012
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Kindle Edition)
In 1780 the huge ancient cemetery next to the Church of Les Innocents in Paris (today it is the area of Les Halles) was so full that the authorities said there were to be no more burials. The stench of decay was so pervasive that in 1786 the French government ordered the exhumation of the cemetery - the bones to be reburied in what is now known as the Catacombs near Montparnasse, and was then known as the quarry at the Porte d'Enfer. The church, the tombs in the crypts and the charnel house were also to be demolished. The area was then to be turned into a market place.

These are the historical facts underlying this novel, and Andrew Miller is steeped in the history of that time just before the French Revolution, when the ideas of the Enlightenment were challenging traditions. The clearing of the old cemetery becomes a symbol for the mood of disposing of the past. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the young engineer who is put in charge of the work, is one of the "moderns"; so is his friend Lecoeur, who comes to do the work at the head of a team of thirty Flemings from the mines at Valenciennes where Baratte had himself once worked and with whom he had at that time spent many hours imagining an Enlightened utopia they called Valenciana. Symbolic, too, is the resistance (in one instance taking a very violent form) they encounter: many of the local have got used to the stench of decay and are opposed to the removal of familiar landmarks; others find this work of "purification" sacrilegious (though Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist of the barely visited church and another "modern", welcomes the change in the full knowledge that he will lose his position - anticipating those clergy who would take part in the early stages of the French Revolution). Anti-royalist and anti-clerical graffiti which are daubed on walls in the neighbourhood drive the context home.

If this seems a rather schematic plan for the book, it is full of people and incidents that flesh it out. Some of the incidents seem to me rather tangential, including Barette's curious love-affaire. The life of 18th century Paris and of 18th century Normandy (where Barette comes from), the state of the roads, the dependence on candle light, the clothes "of the future" which the "moderns" liked to wear, the medical theories of the time (propounded by none other than Dr Guillotin) - all this is brought out vividly. Miller is also throughly familiar with the geography of old Paris - it would have been nice to have had a map on which we could have followed the many streets to which he refers but which no longer exist.

The dialogue is often banal; and I don't feel that this a very organic book. Many actions, including two major acts of violence, do not seem to me to be to arise naturally out of the story - I wondered whether they were based on historical research, which might account for their inclusion. The book engaged my interest less and less towards the end, though there is a set-piece climax in the last few pages.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The book left me feeling in need of a deep, hot bath, 13 July 2012
By 
Allie (Poynton, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Pure (Hardcover)
This is a beautifully written but harrowing account of the clearing of an ancient and over-crowded graveyard situated in the centre of Paris, just at the time when the city was beginning to ferment with revolution. The consequences of the past are horribly present, both in terms of past injustices endured by the people, and the all-pervading smell of the dead which creeps into everything in the vicinity.
The title of the book is wonderfully ironic; grit, grime, ordure, decay, filth and degeneration suffuse this novel. The reek of decomposed bodies permeates the food, bedding and clothing of the characters. It is tangible in the very air of Paris, and gradually seeps out of the pages too. Dirt is indelibly written into the story, almost a character in its own right; not one character at any time makes use of water for washing - the closest approximation to any attempt at personal hygiene is a quick wipe with a handkerchief dampened with rose water. There comes a point when the reader begins to handle the book itself with ginger fingers. There is scarcely a shaft of wholesome light - candlelight is only the gutter of smoky tallow, the graveyard pyres burn dark and thick with ash.
The shining beacon of purity in the novel is the determination of Jean-Baptise (beautifully named, evoking the cleansing balm of healing waters), a young, earnest engineer tasked with clearing the graveyard, to do a thorough, efficient and respectful job of it. Though occasionally led astray by more street-wise Parisians (resulting on the purchase of a laughably unsuitable pistachio green silk suit), and caught up against his better judgement with a group of guerrilla pre-revolutionaries, Jean-Baptiste holds firm to his grisly task with admirable and illuminating nobility, finding self-respect and love on the way.
This is a dark and difficult novel, its subject unrelievedly grim, its language of grime all but insupportably vivid. Whether the light of Jean-Baptiste is sufficient, in the end, to keep the dirt and darkness at bay is moot. The book left me feeling in need of a deep, hot bath.
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Pure by Andrew Miller (Paperback - 5 Jan 2012)
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