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Clearing the ground for a new age,
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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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Initial post: 19 Jun 2012 07:13:20 BDT
Marie-Anne Mancio says:
Glad I wasn't the only one who felt this way!
Posted on 29 Oct 2012 18:47:23 GMT
Last edited by the author on 29 Oct 2012 18:52:35 GMT
Spot on review. I agree with everything you've said and the addition of a map is something this book, plus many others, would benefit from having.
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