Pure by Andrew Miller tells the story of inexperienced engineer Jean Baptiste. Jean, a fish out of water in Paris due to his rural origins, has been commissioned by the powers that be in Versailles to remove the Les Innocents graveyard, deemed no longer fit for purpose, from the Les Halles area of Paris.
Due to the increasing residential population around Les Halles the living and the dead are finding it hard to co-exist. Bodies are overflowing from graves and crashing through cellar walls as continued excavation puts pressure on the graveyards capacity. The overcrowded graveyard is also a health hazard to those in the surrounding area due to decomposition not occurring at the rate it should, and a foul aroma lingers in the local air leaving its taint on everything including the local’s breath.
The removal of the graveyard proves to be an exercise of staggering logistical complexity. Sacred space is being disinterred and all bodies recovered must be accounted for and reburied, on top of this a church must be demolished. Some locals are opposed to the removal of their beloved graveyard and will enact extreme measures to preserve its existence. Given that Jean Baptiste’s previous practical engineering experience amounts to one ornamental bridge the removal of this pocket of potential pestilence is going to prove no easy task. To complicate matters further the year is 1786 so the French revolution is ready to kick off.
This unusual premise for a novel takes its inspiration from a book which mentions this actual historical event entitled L’Homme devant la mort or The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Ariès. Provided a setting by history Miller proceeds to populate it with a varied selection of lively characters. We are introduced to the Monnard family with whom Baptiste is lodging. The family consists of Monsieur Monnard, his wife, and daughter Ziguette as well as voyeuristic maid Marie. The Monnards are conservative petite-bourgeoisie whose home overlooks Les Innocents. The parents have designs on the young engineer, imagining him an ideal match for their daughter. This proves a mistake on their behalf due to a later attempted murder by said daughter, a graveyard partisan, on the hapless Baratte.
What interested me most about these characters is that Miller sets up what initially appears to be a romantic sub-plot only to subvert it with violence. This process of setting up a situation and resolving it in an unexpected way happens on several occasions and it is refreshing to have one’s expectations derailed in such a manner. This effect is further increased by the awareness that the French revolution is beginning to unfold off page. Knowing that an event of such magnitude is about to take place made me feel that I was reading a sub-plot that takes place within a larger story alluded to by the author. This strange effect is unique to historical fiction and while it might not be to all reader’s tastes I found it to be an enjoyable experience.
Other characters which Barrate encounters include Père Colbert, a mad old priest who inhabits the church which is to be demolished, the churches sexton and his saintly granddaughter Marie, the ominously named observer Dr.Guillotin a man of science, and the flamboyant, boozy, ladies’ man and church organist Armand. Armand has connections to the mysterious ‘party of the future’ whose presence grows daily. Armand becomes Baratte’s friend, confidante, and guide to becoming that most fashionable thing in France 1786, a ‘modern man’. Also present is Baratte’s old college friend, current site foreman, and fellow utopian idealist, Lecouer, as well as a crew of miners enlisted for the project. These characters are well represented on the whole and their various interactions and narrative arcs made for an interesting story.
There was only one character I had any problems with and that was the ‘love interest’ Héloïse Goddard. Héloïse is a strikingly beautiful young prostitute nicknamed the ‘Austrian’ due to her physical resemblance to Marie Antoinette. Despised by the local women she is something of an outcast but is self-sufficient enough not to care. My problems with this character lie with the author’s very male squeamishness about his love interest’s job. Special care is taken in describing the ins and outs, or rather lack thereof, involved in Heloise’s profession.
You see Heloise is a special prostitute who doesn’t practice penetrative sex but rather involves herself in saucy light-hearted escapades with lonely but ultimately decent old men. These passages reveal the author’s inability to seriously engage with themes like prostitution. His need to preserve Héloïse’s vaginal integrity seems to stem from the notion that a standard prostitute is a soiled thing unworthy of love, and as such would be an unsuitable match for his male protagonist. A braver writer would have presented the characters profession, no pun intended, ‘warts and all’.
While the author failed in terms of the character Héloïse, there is much else in Pure to recommend it. The writing is first class as Millers experience as a novelist shines through. His attention to historical detail is precise and his ability to evoke an immersive setting populated with vivid characters is without doubt. If historical novels or well written prose are your thing, give Pure a try, it’s a novel that will keep you entertained and you might even learn something along the way.