Pure is a novel about the clearance of the cemetery at Les Innocents in Paris in 1785 and the transportation of the human remains south of the river. A trifle macabre perhaps, but at first sight not very exciting. And why write about Paris in 1785 when one could write about Paris in 1789? Dickens didn’t fall for that.
Yet under Andrew Miller’s pen (or keyboard) this book becomes triumph, the best historical read I have had this year and one of the best ever. The story is experienced through the eyes of the young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who comes up from Normandy to carry out the project. I say experienced because the story is written entirely in the present tense with a feel of immediacy seldom found in an historical novel. Although the Parisian background is meticulously researched, the narrative is so fresh it could have been told by one of your friends or remembered from one’s own life.
The best part is the beginning (although it never tails off) with the nervous candidate waiting for his job interview, hour by hour in the bare ante-room, watching the rival candidate doze in the chair opposite. Then comes the hideously asymmetrical interview, with the tense interviewee and the bored interviewer. And surely I remember those same cold, cramped lodgings with the ambiguous attitude of the landlady’s daughter, although, happily, she never tried to batter me to death in the night, as befell Jean-Baptiste?
I really have helped to clear a cemetery, as a volunteer archaeologist, and the same hostility to the experts who disinter the dead which thrived in 18th century Paris lives on in 21st-century London. And yes, some bodies are in an unbelievable state of preservation.
The story of Pure is mainly about the job, how it is organised and carried out and the problems Baratte overcomes. This is not background, but the story of a young man meeting his first big professional challenge. At the same time Baratte is learning the ways of the capital, finding the love of his life, losing his best friend (a suicide) and finding others, all in the space of a year.
This is a book about death which is truly a slice of life.