Pure by Andrew Miller – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Paris’s oldest cemetery, Les Innocents, is overflowing, the city’s deceased having been piled in there for years, resulting in the surrounding area having been permanently permeated by a fetid aroma. The site is a growing concern to the authorities and a potential hazard to the health of the local population.
The prospect of salvation comes with the arrival of a young, energetic, provincial engineer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, commissioned by the king to clear the cemetery. The story follows in intricate detail Jean-Baptiste’s preparations for the ensuing task, including moving into a residence close to the cemetery and employing a team of miners from Valenciennes for the proposed work. Eventually the clearing of Les Innocents commences with Jean-Baptiste supervising the disinterring of the burial plots. Subplots include an assault on the protagonist by his landlady’s daughter Ziguette, using his own brass ruler for the purpose, in addition to an unexpected romance with a prostitute named Heloise.
The winner of the prestigious Costa Prize in 2011, Pure has been praised for the diligent research of its author and what has been claimed to be the atmospheric ambience of its writing, an integral element of any successful historical novel. However, despite Miller’s purported efforts to create the setting of eighteenth-century Paris, scant effort has been made to evoke the sense of tension in a country on the brink of revolution.
Those readers anticipating that Pure’s subject matter will reveal a tale of the sinister and macabre may well find themselves disappointed by a detailed and mundane content matter, interspersed with fanciful events, for the most part bereft of context. The lack of intrigue is palpable, the characters un-engaging, the incessant details tedious and uninspiring. Devoid of suspense and a meaningful plot, the book’s culmination left this reader concluding Pure has a captivating premise, but a tepid reality.