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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 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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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 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 2 March 2017
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 31 December 2015
Andrew Miller is a very evocative writer and there is much to admire in this novel set four years before the French Revolution. The story centres on a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who is given responsibility for clearing the site of an historic cemetery surrounding the ancient church of Les Innocents in Paris and disposing of the bodies to a quarry outside the capital.

These charnal sites are as deep as 20 metres with more bone than soil. Baratte’s father was a master glove maker and he owes his preferment to one of his father’s clients and to two years spent managing operations in the oppressive mining town of Valanciennes in Normandy.

Les Innocents is too close to the Les Halles markets and is having a disturbing environmental impact [body fat fails to decompose, seeps into the ground, pollutes the water table and creates unimaginable odours] that the author describes with disturbing power across all four seasons of the project. Baratte’s project, demanded by the King, will ‘purify’ the church and the surrounding land.

Miller certainly brings the engineer and a host of other characters to life, weaving these into a narrative in which the Les Innocents site is perhaps the central character. Only fleetingly does the location move from the capital, as when Baratte visits his family in Brittany or when he goes to Valenciennes to secure the assistance of his old mine manager colleague, Lecoeur, in finding the Belgian workers to undertake his mission. A great deal of information about Parisian life, politics and history is presented [not all of the latter being accurate, but historical faithfulness is not the author’s main aim] in a very digestible manner.

The forthcoming revolution looms large over the story, indeed the purification of the site may be seen to reflect the forthcoming political purification of the ancient régime, whilst anti-Royal political slogans are daubed on walls, scaffolds are constructed to bring out the remains from deep below ground [demonstrating Baratte’s enlightened concern for the safety of his men] and one of the doctors sent to examine scientifically some of the disinterred skeletons is a certain Dr Guillotin, an enlightened figure who will later be involved in other systems of demolition and purification.

The main weakness of the book is its rather limited scope; the thirty ex-miners undertaking the excavations are a mere mass of bodies, despite hints about the nature of their leadership and their familiarity with arson. On his arrival in Paris to oversee the work, Baratte lodges with the Monnard family, all of whom along with their maid, Marie, remain curiously insubstantial. Ziguette, the Monnard’s unmarried daughter, is distraught over Barratte’s project and her subsequent actions have a major impact on the second half of the story in which Miller recounts the developing relationship between Baratte and the enigmatic Helöise [an Austrian, like Marie Antoinette] whose reading matter includes ‘Newtonism for Ladies’.

There are many fascinating references throughout the book - Baratte and Lecoeur have created an idealized fantasy society, Valenciana, named as a contrast to Valenciennes, that includes a system for burials; early ideas on public health; a royal elephant [a rather heavy-handed metaphor] that book-ends the story; details of fashion, food [a less than appetising slice of pig’s head tastes ‘as though pickled in its own tears’] and engineering techniques of the period; contrasts between rural and urban life, and the restlessness of some members of the population.

Whilst well-drawn, the cast of characters is rather predictable and the overwhelming feeling of doom and oppression ended up by sucking much of the energy from the story. The behaviour of two dogs, one aristocratic the other from the streets, direct and determine Baratte’s journey over the year but the author leaves him, and the reader, with little sense of where he will go next.

Miller just fails to ignite the spark that would transform this from an interesting book to a great one – but as it won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year Prize, others felt more positive.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 November 2013
When we visit a city today, there is such a sense of the contemporary, but also a real sense of the history - and that our footsteps echo in the footsteps of our predecessors. What might their story have been? how might they have experienced the very same city but decades and centuries ago? What were the sights and sounds they might have encountered?

This is where well written historical fiction can so often bring to life times past - so many authors make the effort and patiently research their story, setting it in its historical context so that the sites, sounds and smells can rise from the pages.

Pure won the Costa 2011 Book of the Year Award and is a neat novel set in the heart of Paris at the turn of 1785. The book explores the lives of the people who are brought together both actively and passively in the digging up of the Cemetery at Les Innocents in Les Halles district of the city. This is a cemetery that has accumulated bodies over many years and in parts is thought to be up to 30 M deep with corpses and skeletons. It is a place that exudes a dank lubriciousness (I love that word) over the local populace, its hold pervades right to the heart of the neighbourhood. Just to rid himself of the iron grip of the cemetery, Armand, for example, has to wash with lemons and a soap of sage leaves and ashes, and smoke the smell of the place from every pore with rosemary. The people in the surrounding area can't live with it but they can't live without it - take Ziguette who becomes histrionic at the thought of the loss of this black place.

The works are overseen by the engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who is originally from Normandy and he explores the city through the eyes of an outsider. Much of the disquiet that is pre-revolutionary Paris is seen through his eyes - the strategically placed graffiti that blooms overnight, the frantic connections for intimacy that the miners fight for, and the church...what does that now stand for both physically and religiously?

There are beautifully evocative descriptions of Paris - whether tracing a path along the Rue de la Lingerie or Rue de la Fromagerie in the company of Jean-Baptiste - or visiting the theatre, where not only performance was on offer, but an array of sustenance from chicken pieces to almonds and wine, all consumed noisily under the flickering light of 500 candles (imagine the scene!). "Pure" is certainly a novel that will transport you back in time!
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Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is sent to Paris in 1785 to demolish a rotting, abandoned and overflowing cemetery which taints the whole area around it with a foul smell. He becomes embroiled in a Dickensian cast of characters set against a backdrop of growing civil unrest which led to the storming of the Bastille and French Revolution four years later. The book only alludes to this, as Jean- Baptiste is far too fixated on the seemingly impossible task in hand and a mysterious fallen Austrian woman he encounters to take notice of other events around him. We watch him change and mature, a boy becoming a man, as he directs his team of miners who are charged with the gruesome work of recovering the tons of bones.

The writing leaps off the page, a well deserved winner of the 2011 Costa book of the year. There is not a single cliché, instead an enviable freshness in every line: "children play laboriously, some pausing to look up, wan and incurious, at the passing wagon." So true to life,so horrific (sometimes the cemetary scenes almost nauseated me)- a book both packed full of the chaos and incident of daily life and deeply reflective of the broader scope of our existence.

I can almost hear an English teacher setting an essay: who was pure, who was impure in the novel, or at least appeared to be, how had this changed by the end of the novel and what does it actually mean to be "pure"?
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