Pure – Andrew Miller

There are books that you mean to read for ages and ages and simply don’t get around to; ‘Pure’ by Andrew Miller has been one such book for me. With its cemetery setting (I do like a cemetery, I was even a tour guide for one) and the fact it sounded like a dark, brooding, sensational and gothic novel I thought this was going to be the ideal book for me from its release date. I didn’t read it. It then won the Costa prize and again ignited my interest in it. I didn’t read it. Then I begged Gavin to put it on the list of The Readers Summer Book Club titles and so had to read it. So finally I ended up reading it about a year after I intended to. How does this happen with books?

Sceptre Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

The year is 1785 as ‘Pure’ opens and we meet Jean-Baptiste Barratte, a young engineer from the countryside who is put in charge of demolishing the oldest (and smelliest) cemetery in Paris, les Innocents, which many believe has become the blight of the city. In doing so Barratte faces one of the most difficult tasks of his career, initially it seems just from a logistical point of view, however as time goes on events unfold Barratte realises that this could be the most difficult tasks for many more reasons than professional, and that a place some wish to destroy is held dear by some.

That all sounds rather grand, gothic and indeed ‘sensational’ which was all part and parcel of why I was looking forward to the book so much. Within a few chapters I was hooked by Miller’s writing, from Barratte’s first meeting at Versailles to his first steps in les Innocents, which is incredibly atmospheric. The stench of the streets, markets and people around the cemetery which have become coated in the stench of death comes of the pages and you can feel it cloying at you. It’s hideous yet also wonderful to feel the place and its history coming alive before your eyes as you read on.

“She has watched it all her life and has never wearied of it, the market and – more directly in her view – the old church of les Innocents with its cemetery, though in the cemetery nothing has happened for years, just the sexton and his granddaughter crossing to one of the gates, or more rarely, the old priest in his blue spectacles, who seems simply to have been forgotten about. How she misses it all. The shuffling processions winding from the church doors, the mourners tilted against each other’s shoulders, the tolling of the bell, the swaying coffins, the muttering of the office and finally – the climax of it all – the moment the dead man or woman or child was lowered into the ground as though being fed to it. And when the others had left and the place was quiet again, she was still there, her face close to the window, keeping watch like a sister or an angel.”

I do love a really dark book and I like a good mystery and as I devoured the first part of the book, in almost a single sitting, I had this wonderful feeling of apprehension in my stomach as things in the Monnard, where Barratte resides, go bump and scratch in the night and whispers are heard and people spy on others sleeping. That and the mystery of those unhappy to see Barratte at the church in les Innocents were making a wonderful ominous concoction and I was thoroughly enjoying it.

I don’t know quite what happened in the second part of the novel, I am not sure if it was Barratte going home to the countryside to find his friend Lecouer, and his mining men, to help him with his task or if it was the introduction of several new strands such as a love story and then the actual task of demolishing, but I sort of lost my way. The writing stayed powerful, precise and completely atmospheric and yet characters names started to confuse me, which woman was which etc, and the task of moving the bodies, which was initially gorily interesting (with mummified corpses and random bones with stories to tell) started to bog me down a little, the mystery seemed to vanish with practicality for a while. Miller did pull it out the bag for me again after this when something completely unexpected and dark happens to Barratte (though it was resolved a little neatly and vaguely all at once) and within the final ten chapters the book had the pace and sense of menace that beguiled me at the start.

The middle did sort of interrupt my flow, partly because I kept having to re-read it and make notes of who was who and why there were there. Yet oddly this isn’t a book that is difficult to read or, again I must praise the writing, get lost in because of its atmosphere, I just wondered if it was trying to do a little too much at one point and so it spread its strengths out which slightly weakened it in the middle over all. Whinge over though because as I said the last third of the book completely won me round and I was shocked with the sudden few twists that came.

So overall I really, really enjoyed ‘Pure’. Without a doubt les Innocents as a place and indeed a character of its own is the absolute star of the show because of the stunning way Miller creates it in your head with his prose. I loved the darkness of the book, it is also darkly funny in parts, and indeed I was fascinated by the period in history which I feel I simply don’t know enough about. A book I would recommend but not sensationalise in case you were left slightly disappointed by the hype someone else had created, which I think was my slight problem with ‘Pure’, though a problem I think I had created in my own head. I will re-read it one day far in the future without expectations and see if it does better, as I do want to return to les Innocents and Miller’s writing is incredible.

Who else out in the ether has read ‘Pure’ and what did you think? Who has read any of Miller’s other books? Where should I go next with regard to reading him? I have been thinking ‘Casanova’ or ‘Ingenious Pain’ might be my next port of call maybe.

I read this book for The Readers Summer Book Club, if you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

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20 Comments

Filed under Andrew Miller, Review, Sceptre Publishing, The Readers Summer Book Club

20 responses to “Pure – Andrew Miller

  1. gaskella

    I was lucky enough to read this book early as an ARC before any of the hype, and I loved it. I particularly liked the sense of revolution fomenting in the background, and the organist of the shut church not being able to leave his post – all the things like that. It is entirely Jean-Baptiste’s story, he is ever-present and I liked that too. A fascinating time-period which I too know next to nothing.

    • I feel a bit like I have come across overly harsh on this book and I did really enjoy it in the main. The hype was a slight issue and indeed the amount of characters and what was going on or not, if that makes sense. But it was a 4/5 for me.

  2. David

    It’s a year or so since I read this, Simon, so some of the plot points have grown hazy in my mind (I’d forgotten about the miners), but the sense of the cemetery and the sheer weirdness of those endless corridors of Versailles and shopping for the pistachio green suit – all that is as fresh and vivid now as it was on the page – in fact more and more is coming back to me now as I think about it. I thought it was a very good book with some fantastic writing, which completely sucked me into the world it created. It really ought to have been on the Booker longlist.
    The only other one I’ve read of his is ‘The Optimists’ which I remember being okay but nothing special, so perhaps don’t go with that one. I have ‘One Morning Like a Bird’ and must get around to that sometime.

    • The cemetry was easily my favourite thing about the book David. I loved the atmosphere that Miller conjured of it. I was lost in it, even if it was pretty stinky.

      I would like to read Ingenious Pain actually, and maybe Casanova.

  3. I had never heard of this book until you and Gav selected it for the club; however, once I saw the subject matter, I knew I had to read it. I actually read Perfume at the same time, so I was fully steeped in the smells of 18th-century Paris.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your review. The story does lose its way at a certain point, but I’ve read many, many books that take place in Paris and few make the city come alive like Pure. I look forward to the podcast!

  4. Sounds good, might add it to my list. Have you read The Somnambulist by Essie Fox? I read it recently and really enjoyed it – Victorian, Wilkie Collins-ish.

    • I have indeed, in fact we had a special on Victorian Literature with Essie on the Readers so hunt it down as she has lots and lots of other recommendations. I am very excited about her next book Elijah’s Mermaid.

  5. Stephanie

    I agree with you Simon and rate this book highly.

    Miller has portrayed the period in a convincing manner. Although the events of the French Revolution take place after the period covered in this book, the lead up to La Revolution is taking place off stage so to speak. The reader is aware of the discontent amongst the masses but the author stays his hand and doesn’t labour its significance. The very fact that the hierarchy can have allowed this cemetery to have been so overused with bodies from the array of epidemics that arose in this period shows they had little concern for those who worked in the area or who lived nearby.

    What Miller has captured particularly well are the challenges placed by this task of relocating the cemetery on those having to carry it out. The reader can see Barratte having to think through the steps ahead of him in executing this unique project and work out how he will address the issues. There is no master plan that he can refer to. No one appears to have shifted a cemetery before or had to deal with the masses of body parts that he and his workmen face. He has to do the planning himself and manage the money to carry out the works with no one to provide counsel to him. As the Engineer, he is required to make this undesirable problem disappear and to have to handle some unsavoury material in a manner that doesn’t create another set of problems. I particularly enjoyed how Barratte took the ascendancy over his landlords although he had to suffer to work his way to this point. This young man took on several challenges in this book and succeeded through perseverance and determination. The unedifying project, the young woman with the questionable background; the striking workers; it was all hard work and in the end he secured them all. It seems like a manual for Project management. I am impressed by this novel and see it as a definite reread.

    • I did really like how the revolution was off centre stage and just bubbling up and along in the background, yet in a way what it is doing to the country and the people is very much the heart of the book.

      It is certainly an admirable novel and one I enjoyed, I was just expecting something a little different from what I got which was my fault more than anything.

  6. Alison P

    I thoroughly enjoyed Pure and, although I can’t know remember anything about the storyline now (!), I remember loving the first Andrew Miller book that I read many years ago – Oxygen. Time for a reread I think…!

    • After reading Pure I will definitely be reading more of Millers novels without a shadow of a doubt. Pure was just one of those books where I had heard so much about it I thought I knew what I was getting and in fact I didn’t which was good and bad all in one go.

  7. I brought it last year and still not read it ,I like the sound of it but not enough to bump the book up my tbr pile (mainly as the wife has put it in the middle of a pile ,all the best stu

    • It is a very good book, but read it when you have forgotten all about it, that is what I would suggest… so it is probably in just the right place on the TBR really hahaha.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed Pure. Partly it was the descriptive writing, but for me the pre-French Revolution setting did it too. The destruction of the cemetery heralded the upheavals to come.

  9. My Mum has been trying to push this book on me for weeks! I was unconvinced but now I’ve read your review and I think it has changed my mind. Like you, I do enjoy a cemetery and a good mystery. Will have to give it a go. Thanks for the review.

    • A pleasure Marie. My mother hasn’t pushed a book on me for ages, I think its because she invariably gets books from me and so its preaching to the converted and the already read it person hahaha.

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