‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller

This is a quiet, thought provoking, well written, historical novel which won the Costa Book of the Year Prize this year.  The story of a young engineer from the provinces, engaged to clear the over flowing and stinking  Les Innocent cemetery and church in pre Revolutionary Paris is manifestly extensively researched, but wears its distinction lightly.

Avoiding anachronistic faux old fashioned language the novel engages in a direct and immediate way, taking us directly into the practicalities of how such a project might be undertaken, but also into the personal and emotional upheavals it would wreak on the people involved in such an unpleasant task.

There is a very visceral sense of the the stench that would come from an overfull cemetery, that it would hang in the air, and taint the taste of any food and begin to seep into a person’s skin; but the people who live just over the wall are used to it, have stopped noticing it, and they will miss it when it is no longer there.  Some will fight to maintain the status quo.

It raises questions about the past, and how much of it should be preserved, how much effort should be devoted to preserving what we know and what is familiar and how much would it mark an improvement to sweep it all away?   The story foreshadows the turbulent times which are just about to engulf France, as unrest and violence encroach on the narrative.

It’s a morality tale in that there is good versus evil, and the realisation of the terrible consequences of misjudging the qualities and virtues of people in whom you put your trust.

It is also a study of anxiety, of sleeplessness and nerviness.  Jean-Baptiste Barratte, the young engineer, worried that he lacks the skill and authority to complete the project, but unable to walk away from the Royal Command to fulfil his obligation is nearly overwhelmed by it and a growing paranoid induced by the oddness of the family of his landlord and the hostility of the people in the area.

I enjoyed the description of his dilemma over what he should wear, and the unsuitable bright green silk suit he is conned into buying to replace the sober black outfit left to him by his father; and his failure to find his way out of the Palace of Versailles, only escaping by climbing out of a window in desperation.

It’s a tremendous feat of imagination, taking historical facts and then working out what it would have been like to actually live through it  Writing as a kind of organised dreaming, to quote Andrew Miller himself.

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