Monday, September 3, 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

A young man, young but not  very young, 
sits in an anteroom somewhere, some 
wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles.
Opening to
by Andrew Miller
In 1785, Jean-Baptist Baratte, an ambitious young engineer, arrives in Paris with a new commission, remove the overflowing remains from the Cemetery of the Innocents, transport them to a more sanitary location and dismantle the adjacent church.  The poor of Paris have found their final resting place in The Cemetery of the Innocents for centuries until so many bodies were packed into it that the neighborhood became overwhelmed by the stench and the bodies themselves began forcing themselves into nearby basements, seeping through the walls.

Something had to be done.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte meets an oddly fanciful set of characters during the year he spends working on the project.  He stays with a slightly eccentric couple and their adult daughter in an apartment overlooking the cemetery.  The church priest refuses the leave the abandoned building, rarely showing himself to the workers who take it apart around him.  The former church organist still lives on the cemetery grounds with his young daughter, playing the organ whenever he gets the chance.  Jean-Baptiste finds laborers willing to take on the task of excavating the many thousands of near skeletal and skeletal remains through an old friend who is now in charge of running a mining operation but looking for more interesting work.

The work itself makes for some gripping, if disquieting writing.  Mr. Miller is writing about a real event.  There really was such a cemetery in the middle of Paris, it really was dug up and disassembled, the remains from it really were taken to an abandoned mine where you can see them today.  I've even seen them myself. But looking at the clean, artistically arranged bones that now make up the Paris Catecombs, one gets no real sense of what a horrible task it must have been to dig them all up 200 years ago.  Mr. Miller has that sense.

But he doesn't dwell on it too much.  Just enough to make it clear why Jean-Baptiste had such a difficult time finding workers why those who spent time there all went a little mad from it by the end.

Except for Dr. Guillotine who shows up early on providing medical help and taking away whole cadavers and parts of skeletons for further study.  It will be just a few years before Dr. Guillotine will invent his famous   humane form of execution.

While Mr. Miller probably dropped plenty of hints, he is writer talented enough to know how to use foreshadowing, an event occurs halfway through the novel that took me completely by surprise.

(Read no further to avoid spoilers.)

One evening, Jean-Baptiste is struck on the head with his own brass ruler so hard that he suffers mild brain damage as a result.  He loses a large number of words from his own vocabulary.  He finds it nearly impossible to read.  His outlook on life and morality changes dramatically.  While he knows he must hide  these changes if he is to keep his position and his future intact, they dramatically alter the course of the novel none-the-less.  I felt like I was reading a new book.  One with the same basic plot, but with a new main character.

This is probably just what it's like to suffer a sudden, dramatic brain injury, but it's not a reading experience I've had before.  While I was taken aback by it, Pure went from being an entertaining story to one I couldn't put down.  I read the last 150 pages in a long afternoon and found myself moved by the end in ways I did not expect while reading the first 150.

I'll be on the look-out for more by Andrew Miller as a result.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've been looking forward to reading this one so it was glad to read your favorable review. I hear that Oxygen, by this author is very good as well.

Jackie Bailey said...

I'm so pleased that you're now an Anderw Miller fan. He is an amazing author! Ingenious Pain is one of my all-time favourites. I recommend that you give it a try.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well, the oozing, creeping bodies and the Catacombs would be enough to entertain ME. But yes, then throw in physical harm to our protagonist and now you have some REAL action! Blood and guts baby! It sounds like a fascinating book!

C.B. James said...

I think this is a book that should have a much wider audience. There's much in it that you'd enjoy, Sandy.

I'll just say that Mr. Miller has my attention now. I'll be looking for more by him.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book too - the detail was fabulous, pre-revolutionary Paris really came to life, and Jean-Baptiste was a superb character.