This is another book that I’ve read for my Reading the Walter Scott Prize project and another interesting read – though a very dark one.
The story is set in France in 1785, just a few years before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy, has arrived in Paris commissioned with an important but gruesome task – the destruction of the cemetery of Les Innocents. As the oldest and largest cemetery in the city, Les Innocents has now become overcrowded, smelly and unsanitary. To prevent it becoming even more of a health hazard than it already is, Jean-Baptiste has been given the job of destroying the cemetery and its church, emptying the graves and arranging for reburial elsewhere.
The novel is based on historical fact – Les Innocents really did need to be removed in the 18th century in order to purify the surrounding area and a market place was later built on the site of the old cemetery. However, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is fictional and in Pure Andrew Miller imagines what it may have felt like to be the person responsible for carrying out such an unpleasant and controversial task. Everyone has an opinion on the destruction of the cemetery and as Jean-Baptiste continues his work, he learns just how deeply people feel about it.
During his time in Paris, Jean-Baptiste lodges with the Monnards, whose daughter Ziguette is not at all pleased with the removal of the cemetery she has been able to see from her window all her life. On his first inspection of the church, he meets the organist Armand de Saint-Méard, who will lose his job when the building is demolished. In another building on the site live the sexton and his young granddaughter, Jeanne, both of whom have devoted their lives to Les Innocents. And then there are the men – ex-miners from the mines of Valenciennes – summoned to Paris by Jean-Baptiste to help with the excavations of the graves. All of these people are affected in some way by what is happening and Jean-Baptiste receives both support and opposition.
I enjoyed the first half of this book which deals with Jean-Baptiste’s first days in Paris, getting to know the people in and around the cemetery, and deciding how to proceed with the job he has been given. I loved the portrayal of a young man experiencing life in a big city, so desperate to fit in that he lets his new friends persuade him to exchange his smart brown suit for a pistachio green silk one. France is heading towards Revolution and although this never becomes a big part of the plot, the hints are there in the references towards progress, a group of rebellious young men who call themselves the ‘party of the future’, grafitti daubed on walls, the contrast between the working class and the aristocracy – and a doctor called Guillotin who arrives at the cemetery to study the skeletons.
I’m not sure what went wrong with the second half of the book, but I started to lose interest at the point when the miners arrived in Paris and work on the cemetery began. I had found it interesting to read about the preparations, the inspections that had to be made and what the work would involve, but the descriptions of the actual excavations started to feel repetitive. I was also hoping for more character development, but apart from Jean-Baptiste himself the other characters have very little depth. Two of them commit acts of violence towards the end of the book, yet I didn’t feel that their motivations were fully explored and the consequences of both actions seemed to be resolved too quickly.
Pure is a fascinating novel, especially if you’re interested in historical fiction set in pre-Revolutionary France. I really liked Andrew Miller’s style of writing, but my lack of emotional engagement with the characters and the other problems I’ve mentioned above left me feeling slightly disappointed at the end.