Pure by Andrew Miller


2013: the story so far…

OK, I’ll admit, I’ve let things slide lately but, hey, life can get in the way sometimes.  So this and the next four posts are to get up to speed with What Cathy Read since – ooh – November 2012.

I have a confession: I like cemeteries.  The church I went to as a child was slap bang in the middle of a large cemetery and I remember being fascinated by the inscriptions on the gravestones.  As a teen I took to strolling around another cemetery, closer to my house, whenever I wanted to get some fresh air and clear my head.  As a young adult, at university in a new city, I did the same. Back in my home city and looking to buy my first house, I was set to make an offer on one overlooking the very cemetery I’d been to church in as a child.  (My husband-to-be vetoed the purchase, in case you’re wondering.)

But much as I like cemeteries as places of peace and windows into social history, I wasn’t convinced that a cemetery clearance would make a good topic for the plot of a novel.  How wrong I was!

Pure was the 2011 Costa Book of the Year.  Set in Paris in 1785, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young (‘but not very young’) provincial engineer is tasked with getting rid of Les Innocents church and cemetery – a commission seemingly assigned to him by chance during a brief interview with ‘the minister’ at the Palace of Versailles.

As you’d perhaps expect given his choice of subject matter, Miller doesn’t shy away from describing the digging up and removal of the bones.  He metaphorically rolls up his sleeves and jumps down into the pits alongside Baratte and his team of miners, calling up the whole, gruesome business in vividly, imaginative prose.

The clearance takes a year.  During that time we are introduced to some memorable characters: the church organist, Armand; Heloise, the tart with a heart; the Monnards, with whom Baratte lodges; the mad priest, Pere Colbert, Jeanne, the sexton’s granddaughter. And there is rape, suicide, attempted murder, accidental death.  When it is done Baratte is ‘neither young nor old’ and almost a broken man: ‘the cemetery has stolen something out of him.’

Improbably, there is also an elephant.  Baratte learns of the existence of this creature, ‘a great, melancholy beast that lives on Burgundy wine,’ during his initial interview with the minister.  It’s kept in a shed away from the palace dogs, which worry it, though they were scared of it at first – the minister tells Baratte this in a way that suggests ‘the elephant and the dogs might be figures in a parable’.  And they are, of course, representing the Imperial regime and the soon-to-be-revolting masses (as evidenced by the graffiti around the city). When Baratte returns to Versailles at the end to report that the job is done, he finds the minister’s office empty (‘of course it is empty’) – possibly for some months – and then stumbles across, ‘the great death-swollen bulk of it in its nest of empty wine bottles.’  It’s an aptly grotesque end to a pleasingly grotesque book.

**** One of the best books I’ve read this year.

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