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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 16 September 2016
This allegorisation of the state of Paris before the French Revolution is a treat for the imagination, especially for those who enjoy history in action without all the tedious bits.
I liked the puzzling actions of some of the characters which allowed me to think my own thoughts, rather than their motives being too obvious. I also loved Miller's writing, particularly the dialogue which is witty and at times snappy.
The Valenciennois miners, who come to work in the cemetery to clear all the bones from the deep pits, exude a half-menacing, half-spiritual presence, which is beautifully shown, not told. The lack of understanding the petit-bourgeois had for the circumstances, experiences and outlook of the down-trodden, is a lovely underlying aspect of the allegory.
The idea that those who resist change (for whatever reason) are punished by those who have to bring about change, offers food for thought. Change and loss are important themes and the book and perhaps points to a moral (if there is one) that avoiding change for too long is disastrous.
Other readers will draw their own alternative conclusions.
All in all an enjoyable, intriguing and very worthwhile read.
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on 7 March 2012
This novel really got inside my head. I could almost smell the stench of decay from the cemetery and feel the decay of the ancien regime. As a history teacher I am often annoyed by novels with an historical setting because of inaccuracies and poor research but the historical background here was impeccable. The main character, the young engineer Barette becomes more complex as the novel progresses and is not a "hero" who always does the right thing. Neither does the novel have a "plot" so there is not a predictable storyline. In many ways the writing reminded me of Thomas Hardy where often flawed characters deal with a changing world and the tragic consequences of their own actions. The novel left me wondering what happened next because it didn't do the rapid fire tying up of loose ends which is so much a feature of many novels. It wasn't necessarily what would happen to Barette as the revolution approached but what would happen to Paris and the citizens around the now cleared cemetery
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on 24 March 2012
Terrific cover. This is the story of a likeable young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte from Normandy who is given the task of organising the removal of the bodies and the destruction of the cemetery and church of Les Innocents in Les Halles in Paris in 1785 which is contaminating the surrounding area. Miller gives us a good sense of the period, the people ... and the smells. In the year of the work Baratte grows as a person, but what creates the tension for the reader is that we know we are in a period four years before the French Revolution. Subtle murmurings of disquiet and unrest are in the backround of the novel which will eventually lead to bloodshed. A Dr Guillotin is needed on many occasions when arriving to examine the bones from the cemetery, attempted murder, rape, injury and illness. Whether the emptying of the cemetery is a metaphor for getting rid of the Ancien Régime I do not know. The novel is highly enjoyable, do read it.
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on 12 July 2014
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I wasn't quite sure what to make of this book, having read a few of the reviews available. It seemed that it was a book that a reader would either love or hate. I absolutely loved this book; it was totally wonderful, absolutely and utterly engrossing; and wonderfuly atmospheric. A book to sink into, to lose oneself in and to absorb slowly the words that roll off the page.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer (a profession relatively new to these pre-French Revolution days of 1785) is summoned to Versailles, there tasked by one of the King's Ministers with the exhumation and removal of the cemetry at Les Innocents, and the demolition of the church, closed for the last five years because of subsidence and its inability to "hold on to its dead". Jean-Baptiste is young, naïve, unsure of his own place in the world, and his own abilities; what does he want to be - a "man of the future" building a career in Paris, or a young man from Normandy who wants nothing more than to return to his roots? His hesitance, his uncertainty, is revealed not only in the story, but in the style of writing. And what beautiful writing; here is the description of a church organist playing a Couperin trio from memory, "his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women". Wonderful.

This changes as the story evolves; during the year of his work at Les Innocents, the reader is subtly drawn into the change in Jean-Baptiste, as he becomes more confident and more sure of his place in the world; his thinking, and the style of writing in the book becomes more strident, more assured, more blunt and forthright. This type of symmetry; Jean-Baptiste growing into himself, as Les Innocents is demolished, could easily be overdone; but the beauty of this book, and the beauty of the writing, is such that the reader is almost unnoticingly drawn into this beautiful symmetry without even noticing. From the beginning of the book, when the young unknown man waits at Versailles for the notice of the Minister, to the end of the book where something mentioned in the first pages is again seen, the symmetry and the balance of the story and the book is beautifully managed.

It's not until almost the end of the book that you realise the cleverness of the writing, and the balance of the story - one man's story, against the story of the neighbourhood in which he finds himself, against the story of France rumbling in discontent under the rule of Louis XVI and the crude scribblings on the walls against his "Austrian" Queen. Nobody is unchanged by this year; against the story of "the Engineer" is set that of those with whom he lives and works; his assistants, the miners brought from Valenciennes to do the work at Les Innocents, his friends, the human scatterings left from the demolition and removal of the cemetry and church.

A beautiful book; a wonderful story in itself, told beautifully, simply and without pretenstion; totally, thoroughly recommended.
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on 22 February 2012
I had trouble putting this book down. It's so well written.
The story revolves around a man who is tasked with the terrible job of removing the cemetary and church of Les Innocents, now overflowing and a health hazard, in central Paris. This timeline is a few years before the French Revolution begins.

In the background, barely touched on, there are rumblings, nighttime meetings and anti-Royalist graffiti keeps appearing round the city. But these are background details. We, the readers, know what is up ahead, but the people in this book don't. I found myself wondering, would this person survive? would they be killed? The book stops before the revolution begins, so we're left wondering what will happen to the people we met in its pages.

The sights and smells and atmosphere of a crowded city full of miscontents is brought alive.

I have recommended this to several friends as it is such a good read and an unusual subject.

WHY NOT 5 STARS?- for me, I felt it rushed towards the end. The Kindle was telling me it was 85% read and yet it was still very much involved and I couldn't see how everything could come to an ending in what space was left. The answer was that things were pushed along a little bit. This did spoil it slightly for me, but then again I think I would always have been reluctant to get to the end of this book, however it came about.
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on 3 April 2013
Beautifully and sensitively written. Very imaginative subject - who would have thought the disinterment of a major cemetery in Paris could be such a poetic tale.The story opens at the palace of Versailles, where our hero is given his task but then not shown a way out! - and we get a real sense of the claustrophobia within the palace. The locations and architecture are vividly described, including the cemetery and church of Les innocents. Apart from the glimpses of life at versailles this is really about the lives of relatively humble French parisians just before the revolution, and the personal journey our engineer hero is making as he works through this seemingly impossible task. You get a sense of the social unrest that simmers below the surface, and the hardships faced by the miners, farm labourers and other working-class citizens. All of the characters are wonderfully observed. I especially liked the inclusion of Mnsr Guillotin later on. If you are interested in this period of french history you won't be disappointed by the research which lies behind it. We could be there, watching this story unfold before our eyes. I think it would make a beautiful film. I
I will definitely read more by Andrew Miller and I'm so glad to have read this story.
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on 7 May 2012
Really enjoyed this book. It was reviewed in the paper and I ordered it from good old Amazon. I think it took me about three days to finish it, which wasn't bad going when I work full-time. It's evocative and believable in a way that historical novels sometimes aren't, in fact, it's a genre I don't much care for, but this was an exception. I'll certainly be reading it again.
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on 12 March 2013
A truly unusual novel with a sense of place which is eerie and chilling, The characters are sympathetic and believable. It changed my understanding of revolutionary Paris.
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on 16 January 2016
Very disappointed after reading good reviews.
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