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.
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.
on 14 February 2012
In 1785, a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is given a job - to demolish an over-crowded graveyard and moribund church in Paris. This book tells the story of that demolition and of what happens to Jean-Baptiste during a momentous year.
Pure is a 'literary' novel and, for me, almost perfectly demonstrates what I both love and loathe in 'literary' books. What I love is the beautiful prose, the choice of the perfect word to paint a picture, evoke a character or describe a scene. For example, the cemetery's contents have to be ceremoniously removed and taken to a disused quarry and, to ease public disquiet, the disinterred corpses are to be treated with respect. Miller writes: 'The horses wait patiently in their traces. Now and then one scrapes a hoof over the cobbles. The priests are pale, rehearsed, young, competitively pious. They grip their flambeaux, glance at their neighbours, glance at the carts with their velvet-draped loads.' That one phrase - competitively pious - tells me all I need to know about the pre-revolutionary state of the church in France. Literary writing of this calibre never patronises the reader.
However, all the things I loathe in 'literary' books are also here: the absence of a strong plot, the heavy use of allegory, the lack of reactive emotions and the seeming randomness of characters' actions because no explanation for motive is ever forthcoming. Sometimes I'd quite like to have things explained to me, please - damn it, I need to be patronised!
There is a lot to be admired in such beautiful and evocative prose and I'm not surprised it won the 2011 Costa prize - it's the sort of book that wins prizes. All in all, I'm glad I read it and I would recommend it, although not without reservations.
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.
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.
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!
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.
This was my first Andrew Miller and I thought it hugely impressive. As others have said, and it seems to be his trademark, he writes prose that the angels would be proud of. So what to make of the story itself ? A story of a young engineer, instructed by the "the minister" to clear a Paris cemetery in 1785. The advantage of such an obscure plot is that as I reader I approached it with no pre-conceived ideas and quickly found myself thrilled by the exquisite story-telling.
I have to say, that I found the first section of the book the most satisfying. The writing, the extraordinary task being undertaken, the richness of the characters. Everything was just perfection. And I'm not suggesting that it actually flagged after that but given the nature of the central story - emptying graves - I did find that as a reading experience things leveled off a bit. Of course much happens along the way but spoilt as I was by that first 100 pages perhaps some of the magic evaporated.
But I am just drawing a distinction between something that is totally wonderful with something that is still marvellous; i.e. at the end of the day this is a 5 star book. Andrew Miller has created an astonishingly rich tale full of memorable characters. I assume it will be a shoo-in (shoe-in) for the main prizes later on in the year and either way I am certainly now off to read his other books.
This was a really strange read for me and one that failed to really grab me. The writing is well crafted with some beautiful prose but the characters seem distant and lacking in substance. Dramatic events occur but they crash through the delicate prose unexpectedly and fade quickly away. I often felt "did that just happen"? and "where are the reactions from the characters"? The story seemed just to skim the surface, plodding along until the end. Very difficult to explain the underwhelming feel of this book.
I'm sure that readers who enjoy well written and delicate prose will get a lot from this author, but for me it was strangely bereft of any of the strong emotions and consequences that should have erupted from several of the dramatic events. It's by no means a bad book, but it didn't sit right with my reading enjoyment. I suspect I missed some of the subtle writing that others have rated so highly.
on 2 April 2012
Pure was loaned to me by a colleague, who promised that the book was beautifully written. I can't argue with that, it certainly is. It's almost poetic in it's form, and the author has a really good way with words and the descriptive nature of the writing is sublime.
I found it a bit of an unusual novel, for the first 100 pages or so, it felt like not a lot happened, and the story ambled along following Jean Baptiste, the young engineer, as he was tasked with the unenviable task of moving the cemetery of `Les Innocents' and the accompanying church.
I'm not sure accurate the book is in terms of the historical context, I've read a few reviews on amazon where Miller has been criticised for his historical accuracy, but, I guess as long as you're not looking for a reference book, some poetic licence is OK. The prose is atmospheric and descriptive and you get a fill for Jean Baptiste, his living arrangements with the Monanrds and the cemetery itself.
In terms of the quality of the prose, this is a five star book, but for me, the story lacked a bit of depth and real `oommpph' in terms of the twists and turns you might expect.
It's worth a look, but I think just judging by the array of amazon reviews, this is a bit of a marmite book.