This is my review of Pure by Andrew Miller.
This unusual and imaginative take on the France of 1785, with unrest brewing in the streets of Paris and mines of the north, introduces us to Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the insecure young engineer from the provinces who is given the unwanted task he cannot refuse – the removal of the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, which is polluting the air and soil, threatening the cellars of the surrounding houses. It is not just a question of making the air “pure” but also on another level of relieving France of the corruption of the monarchy and the dead hand of the church, as indicated by one of Miller’s well-chosen quotations: “The time will come when the sun will shine only on free men who have no master but their reason”. We know, of course, that the imminent French Revolution will be flawed by the atrocities of men like Robespierre, just as we can appreciate our foreknowledge of the fate of the kindly Doctor Guillotin who assists Baratte.
The detailed account of the macabre operation of clearing bones rotting metres deep is saved from becoming too oppressive by Miller’s ability to create vivid pictures of the life of the Paris streets, combined with a cast of colourful characters, not to mention the slightly sinister cat Ragout, equally at home in a charnel house as on a lady’s lap.
Although some readers may be troubled by odd events which may be hard to explain, at least they provide scope for discussion. This is quite a dark read at times, with unsettling whiffs of necrophilia, yet also soft-centred, as in the portrayal of the perhaps too good to be true, refined tart Heloise. I found a good deal of wry humour in the book, such as the earnest and upright Jean-Baptiste allowing himself to get caught up in a drunken escapade to paint political slogans on city walls, calling himself “Beche”, but keeping shtum and feeling vaguely proud when the name “Beche” continues to appear for months afterwards.
Sometimes I felt Miller is playing to the gallery to boost book sales, but overall this is skilfully plotted, very well-written with many striking images, and some interesting points raised for you to mull over as regards say, how we may be corrupted by unpleasant tasks, how we may sell our souls, humiliate ourselves or others in the pursuit of ambition, and so on.