24 May 2014

Review: Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller is set in the 19th Century and takes place amidst Les Innocents, the oldest cemetery in Paris.  In 1875, the cemetery has been closed to burials for 5 years because it is overflowing with corpses and emitting a foul stench that permeates the air and taints anything growing in the ground nearby.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Engineer employed by the Minister to demolish the Les Innocents Cemetery and relocate the human remains to a secondary site outside the city of Paris.  (The location is known to us now as the Catacombs of Paris).

Jean-Baptiste struggles with the morality of the project and where to find men willing to carry out the dark task of disturbing the final resting place of thousands of Parisian occupants.  

Pure is rich in a sense of place and I really felt as though I were in Paris with the protagonist.  The descriptions of the church, the charnel houses, the graveyards and the massive organ inside the church were so evocative I was quick to build a clear picture in my mind of this grisly yet soulful place.  So much so, that when I stopped reading Pure to do some private reading about Les Innocents, the sketches were exactly what I'd pictured in my mind.  The cemetery had been operating from the middle ages until 1780, and was said to contain the remains of 2 million people.
The Holy Innocents' Cemetery, ca.1550.
The true historical nature of the subject matter is the real hero here, and it's no surprise that Pure won the Costa Book Award in 2011 for "Best Novel" and "Book of the Year."  Despite the dark content, there are several opportunities to smile throughout the novel, and here's one I'd like to share from page 51:
"He must read, work, think. He...pulls close the candle and opens his copy of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle Volume II. A piece of pale straw is his bookmark. He frowns over the  page. The taxonomy of fish. Good. Excellent. He manages an entire paragraph before the words swim away from him in black, flickering shoals..."
I loved that quote, and hopefully it gives you an insight into Andrew Miller's writing style.  Pure is not a book for everyone, it's gruesome and confronting and the smells alone might be enough to deter a brave reader, but it covers a fascinating event in history and one this reader definitely didn't want to shy away from.

My rating = ****

Carpe Librum!

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