Pure by Andrew Miller
Europa Editions, New York, 2012
From my TBR pile. Winner of the 2011 Costa Best Novel Award.
I’m not sure where I first heard of this one, but I bet it was a review on The Guardian website. I held off ordering it from abroad and was pleased to see that Europaeditions was quick to publish it in the US.
This is the kind of novel that I love. Historical fiction so enticing that I just couldn’t put it down.
In 1785 Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a modern young engineer from Normandy, arrives in Paris to do a job given to him by a government minister. He’s to empty the overflowing graveyard at the church of Les Innocents, a place whose abundance of burials is poisoning the neighborhood. He boards with a family whose house is across the road from the cemetery. He sets about his job, with the help of an old work-mate and some minors from the country, clearing the place of the stench and burden of the past, only to find he may be making space for something completely unexpected. Are the rotting bodies a symbol of the rotting regime? Is the clearing of the churchyard a sign of bigger changes to come?
Pre-revolutionary Paris comes alive, the city filled with people I want to know, places I want to visit. And the writing just flows, it felt to me like I was floating on a river of words:
They have entered one end of a curious clogged vein of a street, more ally than street, more gutter than alley. The top stories of the buildings tilt towards each other, just a narrow line of white sky between them. On both sides of the street, every second house is a shop and every shop sells cheese. sometimes eggs, sometimes milk and butter, but always cheese. Cheese in the windows, cheese laid out on tables and handcarts, cheese piled on straw, cheese hanging on strings or floating in tubs of brine. Cheeses that must be sliced with a knife big enough to slaughter a bull, cheeses scooped with carved wooden spoons. Red, green, grey, pink, purest white. Jean-Baptiste has no idea what most of them are or where they come from, but on he immediately recognizes and his heart lifts as if he has caught sight of some dear old face from home. Pont-l’Evêque! Norman grass! Norman air!
‘Want to try some?’ asks the girl, but his interest has moved to the stall next door, where a woman in a red cloak is buying a little cake of goat cheese, the rind rolled in ashes.
‘That,’ says the organist, leaning across Jean-Baptiste’s shoulder, ‘is the Austrian. So called on account of her likeness to our beloved queen. And not just the blond hair. Hey, Héloïse! Meet my friend here, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, and whose come from god-knows-where to turn our lives upside down.’
She is counting out little coins for the cheese. She glances over, first at Armand, then at Jean-Baptiste. Does he blush? he thinks perhaps he has frowned at her. Then she looks away, takes her purchase, starts to move through the crowd. From page 46.
Miller’s work reads so naturally I found myself lost in Pure for hours. The writing is precise, very beautiful, and the story is engaging. I urge you to give it a try.
Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky. The temperature is falling. In an hour or two the first frost flowers will bloom on the grass of the parade grounds, parks, royal gardens, cemeteries. The streetlamps are guttering. For their last half hour they burn a smoky orange and illuminate nothing but themselves.
In the faubourgs of the rich, watchman call the hour. In the rookeries of the poor, blunt fingers try to hide in each other’s warmth. From page 72.