There is a lot of heavyweight historical fiction around, trying to recreate the minutia of the chosen period. Sometimes, it can feel like wading through an encyclopedia before you glimpse the plot. This is absolutely not the case with Pure by Andrew Miller. When he won the Costa prize earlier this year with this his 6th novel, Miller told the Telegraph “I think novels are at their best when they are rooted in the physical,” well, he certainly managed this with Pure. Set in pre-revolution Paris, it tells of a young, but not too young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte (or oftentimes just referred to as “the Engineer”), who takes on a possibly career-defining job sanitising an overflowing cemetery in the Les Halles district. The cemetery of Les Innocents is so full it has not accepted new bodies for 5 years and those interred there are overflowing into neighbouring cellars. This is where the “physical” aspect of the book comes in. The stench from the cemetery is such that it penetrates everything in the district, the very breath of the people living nearby smells of death and decay. As the clearance begins, we witness the sounds of the horrific work the gangs of men create; bones crunching, spades digging the earth and fires crackling to purify the air. Miller is not only able to evoke brilliantly these physical attributes of the cemetery clearance, but descriptions of other parts of the Engineer’s life in Les Halles are so vivid you can almost taste the bland food served by his landlady and smell the fish market. Jean-Baptiste is not confident in his ability to complete this job, he is filled with self-doubt, it almost takes a knock to the head to focus his thoughts, finish the job and move on. He is helped in his task by an ensemble of characters, who, unlike in other historical fiction, do feel real, with the same concerns for survival as the rest of us.
It’s not difficult to spot the metaphor in this book, the idea that France itself needs a fresh start, needs purifying and demands revolution. The wind of change is blowing in Paris, there is a stench of the “old” in the air, the city needs to be cleansed while its inhabitants consider and trust the future. Even the Engineer’s name, Jean-Baptiste, suggests one who purifies, gives new life and absolves sins. There is a whisper of subversion as slogans are scrawled around the neighbourhood referring to a character called Beche who will bring violence to the city. Beche is French for “spade” and is the nickname given to Jean-Baptiste by his closest friend in Paris. Even the doctor studying the disinterred bones hints at revolution – he is Dr Guillotine, his character is one of the most friendly and likable, which is slightly ironic considering the horrors caused by the machine with his name during the revolution a few years later.
A good book stays with you for a few days or weeks after you’ve closed it for the last time and moved your bookmark elsewhere. I find myself wondering what is likely to happen to Jean-Baptiste and his lover, Heloise, once the revolution starts. It is conceivable that as an intellectual and an ex-prostitute both might fall victim to madam Guillotine. I find myself creating an alternative future for them…that really is a sign of a good book!