Just Finished Reading: Pure by Andrew Miller (FP: 2011)
Paris, 1785. Recently graduated engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is in the capital for the first time in his life. After successfully finished a bridge for his patron back in Normandy he has been recommended for great things. Unfortunately patronage does not always work the way those patronised would like. But still it is the offer of a lifetime and a gateway, he hopes, to greater things. For Baratte has been commissioned to clear the greatest crematory in Paris and to make it clean again, usable, pure. Unused for 5 years and polluting the whole of the surrounding district the task, like the cemetery itself, is vast and complex. If he didn’t have problems enough he is sworn to, at least initial, secrecy. There are forces at work within the city, radicals and troublemakers, who would use the clearing as a stick to beat the government and the Monarchy. But what is worse, at least for Baratte is the possibility of failure. With nothing to recommend him except his intelligence and his talent failure could mean a life of poverty or, worse, being forced to return home to work on his brother’s farm. Paris itself, or the denizens thereof, prove to be just as challenging as the task ahead of him. The family he is lodged with prove to be straight-laced, uncommunicative and slightly mad, the cemeteries church organist proves to be a drunk and libertine (but lots of fun and a loyal friend) and a strange women, dressed in red and known locally simply as ‘the Austrian’ proves to be far more than he could have ever bargained for or imagined. No matter how much he plans and how much he hopes it’s going to be one hell of a year for young Jean-Baptiste.
As someone who loves historical novels and has an interest in the French Revolution picking up this book was a bit of a non brainer. Probably the only thing that gave me much pause was that it had won the 2011 Costa Novel Award. Usually, at least in my experience, this means a book loved (apparently) by the critics because it is unusual, difficult or full of smart allusions and references to things you’ve never heard of. Fortunately it was none of that – at all. Instead here we have a novel that was a sheer delight to read from the first page to the last without, as far as I could tell, a single fault: not one. Saying that I was impressed by this book is frankly an understatement. I loved the feel of it, the tone of it and the fabric of it. Everything just felt real. You could smell the fish in the market, you could hear the out of tune piano in the boarding house, you could taste the bland food served there and feel the hangover Baratte suffered when out drinking with the organist Armand. It has a wonderfully rich feeling like eating a very well prepared and exquisitely served meal. I loved the way that some characters appeared and then vanished just like real life – a mystery without a name or a resolution. I loved the way that things worked out as much as those that did not (despite hopes and expectations). I loved the characters – even the ones you felt sorry for, or disliked or even, possibly, hated (at least temporarily). The whole thing felt, I’ll use that word again, real. This was definitely one of those novels that I struggled to come back from when a phone rang that I need to pick up or a visitor arrived that I couldn’t ignore. I almost had to check my shoes for mud (and less savoury things) I might have picked up on the Parisian streets and brought back to the office. Despite all of the obvious problems of living there (from our elevated perspective) I could almost believe that I could walk their alleyways and get to know (and respect) the characters presented to me as friends. The whole thing was, as you can no doubt tell, a heady and very pleasant experience. Definitely one of the books of the year and very highly recommended to anyone desiring a very, very accomplished novel that you’ll not easily forget in a hurry.