Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, has been employed by one of the King’s ministers to purify the cemetery at les Innocents. The cemetery is the oldest in Paris and is too full to handle any more bodies. Its stench pervades the surrounding neighbourhood and hangs on people’s breath as they talk. Even food has a strange taste that should not be there. And so Jean-Baptiste begins…
Andrew Miller’s characters are richly described and for the most part believable. Jean-Baptiste starts the story as a naïve provincial engineer with only one project behind him. He arrives at the Palace of Versailles full of youthful exuberance, and views the project he has been granted as a way to make a name for himself in modern France. Tasked with the demolition of the church of les Innocents and removal of the human remains to a location outside of the city limits, Jean-Baptiste will have to make sure that the taint of rotting remains will no longer bother the living.
Once in Paris he meets the church’s eccentric organist Armand, who, thanks to Miller’s descriptions of this slightly manic man with flame red hair and slightly purplish lips, put me in mind of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the Mad Hatter in the recent Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland. Armand is a complex character who at first feels like the light relief against the backdrop of death and decay. It is the character’s philosophy for a modern and free-thinking France, however, that causes the reader to feel somewhat uneasy. In some respects Armand was my favourite character purely because I never knew quite what to expect from him, but in others I felt he added too many confusing reflections upon the state of France at the time.
Pure is at once achingly beautiful and downright dull in turns. Miller’s prose is perfectly executed, but the story it tells is lacking something substantial. There are scenes that hold the power to break your heart, but then there are points where it is difficult to discern the relevance. One of the scenes that truly captured my imagination was a small scene where Baratte has returned to Bellême over the Christmas period and he reflects upon that strange point in life when home no longer quite feels like home.
“The visit, like all visits home for a long time now, has been an obscure failure. When is it we cease to be able to go back, truly go back? What secret door is it that closes? Having longed to escape Paris, he is now anxious to return. Whatever his life will be, whatever fate it is he is pressed against, it will be lived out somewhere else, not here among the still-loved fields and woods of his boyhood.”
Perhaps if you read Pure knowing more of the history of the French revolution then you might get more out of it, but I found myself frequently bogged down in paragraphs where I struggled to make sense of the story, not unlike the protagonist Jean-Baptiste Baratte towards the end of the book. If you have a good working knowledge of France at the time of the French revolution than maybe this book is for you. I personally found many parts of it too oblique to make it fully enjoyable.