Oozing With The Smell of Decay: Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure by Andrew Miller

When you read Pure by Andrew Miller, it might be wise to have a strongly scented candle by your side. For this is a book which evokes stench and decay so powerfully I was convinced I could smell it on my clothes every time I opened the book.

Pure is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world.

False Dreams of Utopia

He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.

In the  Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The  subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air,  taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.

Living Hell

It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.

“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.

Belief Destroyed

Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.

The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide,  who gives him his commission:

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.

Removed?

Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

“Flawless Historical Fiction”

Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.”  I’m not going to argue with that assessment.

Miller avoids the mistake made by so many historical fiction authors who load up their narrative with too much info gleaned from research. What we get in Pure is plenty of detail about clothes, food and daily domestic life of the period but it’s seamlessly woven into the narrative. Pure is so magnificently atmospheric it reminded me at times of the early scenes in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume,

But then we get the additional layering of the parallel between the hell of the graveyard and the hell that is to follow in the Revolution. Ultimately there is a sense of optimism at the end where flowers once more bloom again in the now empty cemetery and sunlight filters through the broken roof of the church to illuminate the darkness.

Pure By Andrew Miller: Footnotes

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller gained his MA in creative writing through the prestigious programme at the University of East Anglia. He went on to complete a PhD in critical and creative writing at Lancaster University.

He has written eight books, all published by Sceptre, the imprint of Hodder and Stoughton,  His first novel, Ingenious Pain, published in 1997 went on to win three awards – The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy and The International Dublin Literary Award. Pure won the Costa Prize Novel of the Year. His most recent novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (see my review) won the Walter Scott Prize.

  • Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018, Sceptre)
  • The Crossing (2015, Sceptre)
  • Pure (2011, Sceptre)
  • One Morning Like a Bird (2008, Sceptre)
  • The Optimists (2005, Sceptre)
  • Oxygen (2001, Sceptre)
  • Casanova (1998, Sceptre)
  • Ingenious Pain (1997, Sceptre)

This review was posted originally in 2013. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

2020: Why It's Time For New Directions

The year is barely a week old and I’m already feeling I’m in catch up mode. I meant to share my 2020 plans well before now but it’s taken me until today to work out what exactly I want to focus on this year.

I’ve spent the last few days soul searching as well as reflecting on my experience over the last few years when I set specific goals for reading and blogging. And I’ve come to a few conclusions which are going to influence what I do this year.

The End of Challenges

The biggest decision is to stop doing reading challenges that involve making lists of titles to read. I love the process of creating the list but as soon as that’s done, and it’s time to actually read those chosen books, my interest in them completely fades away. Having a list to work through takes away the element of freedom.

Instead of being able to choose a book at random from my ‘owned but unread’ shelves or delve into something that caught my eye in the library, I’m ‘having’ to read one of the titles on my list. Just so that I can make some inroads into that challenge.

It’s why I’ve never completed a #20booksofsummer project. Even reducing the number to 15 this year didn’t work (though I came close). It’s also why it’s taken me longer than the target 5 years to get through the Classics Challenge and why, unbelievably, my Booker Prize project is unfinished seven years after it began.

Away With Lists

Lists are clearly not my thing. Neither are challenges that require me to read specific categories of books or numbers of books within a specified time period. Some of those I’ve been undertaking in recent years, like the Booker Prize project have been entirely self imposed. So I have only myself to blame for that!

There’s nothing wrong with the challenges themselves. Plenty of other bloggers and readers find them enjoyable and rewarding and, amazingly, have the ability to cope with several at the same time. It’s not the challenge that’s the issue; it’s me.

2020 will therefore be a year without challenges. I’ll finish the ones I’ve already started – I’ve come so far with most of them that it would be silly to stop now – but I won’t go looking for anything new. I want a year of relaxed, stress-free reading.

I’ve Started So I’ll Finish

Booker Prize Project: One more title to go and then I’ll have read (or attempted to read) every winner from 1969 to 2015. That’s 50 winners in total. Once I’ve read How Late It Was How Late by James Kelman, I’ll be done. I don’t regret having spent time with the Booker Prize but my interest in it as a literary prize has seriously waned in the last few years so I won’t be committing myself to reading any of the post 2015 winners.

Classics Club challenge: I embarked on this in November 2012. According to the ‘rules’ I was supposed to have read 50 books from my list by November 2017. Well, it’s now more than 2 years later and I still have three titles yet to go. I’m using the latest Classics Club spin to give me a nudge towards the finishing line. I still have books on my original list that I haven’t read. I might get to them over time or I might not.

World of Literature Project: Another self-imposed challenge to read books by authors from 50 different countries within 5 years. I’m two years over the target date with 9 countries still to go. No reason why I shouldn’t find those remaining countries before the year is over. I’m not abandoning my interest in reading translated fiction and fiction from around the world – just taking away the pressure of specific goals.

New Directions

The one aspect of challenges I do enjoy is the camaraderie and feeling of connection to other bloggers. I don’t want to lose that – the social element of blogging is by far the thing that keeps me going. Without it, blogging would be just a form of vanity publishing.

Instead of year long or multi year challenges I’m going to switch my focus to small events; the kind that last just for a week or a few months.. There are countless numbers of these around so I’m going to have to be selective otherwise I’ll end up in the same rabbit hole I’ve been in before via challenges.

I’ll be joining events if and only if they take my fancy and I can do them without a reading list in sight.

Reading Events On the Horizon

There are already a few events that are calling to me.

Japan Literature Challenge, hosted by dolcebellezza is now in its 13th incarnation. It involves just reading books by Japanese authors between January and end of March. It’s a good opportunity to revisit some of the authors whose books I already own.

Paula at Book Jotter will be hosting the Wales Readathon throughout March. This will be the second year for the event and of course I have to support anything which promotes literature from my home country.

Unfortunately that readathon coincides with Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books so I might have to limit myself to just one book from Ireland. I’ll at least feel that I’ll have joined in the buzz. That’s what is so great about these short events – you can just dip in like this without any obligations to do much more.

Finally, in April, Simon and Karen will be hosting the 1920 reading club; a week long celebration of fiction, non-fiction, poetry published 100 years ago.

And that’s more than enough for me to be getting on with. What happens after April I’ll decide further down the road.

Will You Be Joining Me? Have you made any plans yet for 2020? Do they include challenges or do you prefer more free-form reading? Do post a comment below to let me know.

Three Hours Of Tense Drama In A School Under Siege [book review]

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

When you despatch your children through the school gates each morning, you trust they’re heading into a safe environment. That nothing beyond those gate will put them in danger. Rosamund Lupton‘s debut novel Three Hours turns that belief on its head.

It’s 9.15am one cold, snowy November morning at the Cliff Heights School in rural Somerset. The morning’s session has barely begun when shots are fired. Headmaster Matthew Marr lies in a pool of blood, powerless to protect his students from the armed gunman who paces the school’s corridors. Unknown to him, accomplices hide in the surrounding woods intent on causing further harm.

Disturbingly Plausible Scenario

The disturbing scenario of Three Hours is one that’s frighteningly familiar from TV news images of school shootings like those at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and Columbine High School in 1999.

Rosamund Lupton takes us behind those headlines to examine the reactions of people caught up in a similar attack. Hour by hour we share the fears of the students and staff trapped at the Cliff Heights school; the anxiety of parents waiting for news and the frustrations of police officers tasked with ending the siege without further bloodshed.

In the midst of their fear lies bewilderment about the identity and the motivation of the gunmen. Are they terrorists or someone with a grudge against the school? Is the entire school the target or are the attackers after two pupils only: the brothers Rafi and Basi Bukhari, both Muslim refugees from Aleppo?

An Unlikely Target

Three Hours is set in a high performing, well-funded liberal school that prides itself on its philosophy of tolerance, inclusivity and openness. It’s the last place anyone would expect to be targetted by extremists. As the deputy head tells the police psychologist drafted in to help identify the attackers:

We have safe spaces for debate, democracy in action through the school council … tolerance is an integral part of the school. It’s why we don’t have a uniform and the students are free to practice whatever religion they choose, or none.

But even these principles provide no protection against dark forces that actively encourage and support radical racist messages and actions. One morning, without warning, those forces are unleashed on the school’s sprawling campus.

Three Hours illustrates how radicalisation can happen anywhere and how extremist groups prey on susceptible minds, using complex technology platforms to cloak their identities. By the time the attack is over, pupils, teachers and parents will have had their beliefs and trust put to the severest test.

Courage In Face of Danger

But Rosamund Lupton also shows how love and courage prevail in the midst of danger and uncertainty. Some of the people involved find skills and strengths they never realised they had. Others discover who they truly are, what they believe in and for what they are willing to die.

In the school’s isolated theatre, one group of students press on with their rehearsal of Macbeth, finding that Shakespeare’s portrayal of ambition and murderous intent helps them deal with their own unfolding drama. In the pottery building, a 60-year-old teacher converts tables into a pretend house. While her class of lively seven-year-olds are diverted into making miniature clay cups and bowls, she makes clay tiles to protect them from flying glass. And in the library, sixth-former Hannah Jacobs strips to her bra, using her t shirt to stem the blood flowing from her headmaster’s body.

Healing Power of Love

The real hero of the school, and the epitome of selfless love is Rafi; the pupil who finds an explosive device in the school grounds, raises the alarm and shows the way to evacuate one building. The person who, warned by police advice that he might be a target, puts his life in danger to go in search of his younger brother missing in the woods.

Rafi suffers from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of his flight from Syria. But through his friendship with Hannah he is finding a way to put his life back together:

He thinks that a long time ago he was like a glass … clear and transparent, made of invisible love and he was filled with liquid running life, right to the brim.

… then he’d been beaten and ashamed and frightened and he was a thousand pieces scattered on a snow-covered pavement in Aleppo, an Egyptian beach, the deck of a boat, a migrant camp

But then he met a girl, loves this girl and each of those thousand pieces know their way back to their place in the glass, the cracks in him kaleidoscopes of light.

There’s much to admire in Three Hours, from the setting to the characterisation ( I was drawn particularly to Rafi) to the tightly controlled timescale. Lupton shows great skill in entering the minds of both children and adults, showing both their vulnerability and their resilience.

It’s evident too that the novel is based on some really sound research. Part of my career was spent managing crisis response so can vouch for Lupton’s description of police command procedures and the details of the school’s emergency plan.

All these factors mean Three Hours is an intense, riveting yet unsettling read. I suspect few parents with offspring still in the school system will read it and not experience a wave of anxiety.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton: End Notes

Rosamund Lupton became a screenwriter after leaving Cambridge University. Her debut novel Sister, was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.

Rosamund Lupton

Three Hours is her fourth novel. It’s published by Penguin Viking in hardback and e-book on January 9, 2019 . My thanks to the publisher for the free copy I received via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Brilliant and beastly: the enigma of VS Naipaul

Reading Patrick French’s hefty biography of VS Naipaul brought back memories of my once playing Mahjong with incipient conjunctivitis; the game was challenging enough without the tile details going in and out of focus.

French’s writing style in general has little appeal for me – a little dry and academic and when he presents, as he often does in this tome, a lengthy, name-dropping paragraph, the hotchpotch of third-party comments and attributed quotes undermines clarity. Things become a little blurred – my response was often to skip ahead.

french bookPloughing through ‘The World Is What It Is’, I was also reminded of a lecturer long ago who recited his words of wisdom to us students while absently leafing through the pages of a newspaper. Like that academic, French is not, for me, a natural at engaging with his audience.

Published in 2008, this authorised biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author covers Naipaul’s life from his birth in1932 to his second marriage in 1996. The author, who won the Booker Prize for his novel ‘In a Free State’ (1971), died in 2018.

The biography’s title derives from the opening of Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River (1979):

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

The sentence, channeled through a fictional character, tells us much about the author’s view the world and his fellow travellers.

While French’s is not a hagiographical work, he is not overtly critical of his subject who was, it is clear from this book and other accounts, a difficult person to like.

Naipaul’s intelligent, unassuming wife Pat remained pitifully loyal to the author even though he treated her like a lowly servant.

You behave like the wife of a clerk who has risen above her station,’ he once cruelly barked at her. And then, in a moment of self-pitying regret, he wrote to her: ‘I love you, and I need you. Please don’t let me down. Please forgive my occasional lapses. At heart I am the worthiest man I know.’

His ‘occasional lapses’ included habitual visits to prostitutes, furious and violent domestic outbursts, a perpetual haughtiness and taking up a long-term intimate association with another woman who became, effectively, a second wife. This was how he treated  his nearest and supposedly dearest. Others, friends, associates, publishers who crossed him and so on found themselves subject to the notorious Naipaul ‘blank’. They simply became non-persons; he did not just cut them, he did not notice them.

A hatchet job on Naipaul’s disagreeable qualities could fill a book. French’s commendably objective approach brings balance but there is no getting away from unpleasantness of the person under scrutiny. To take our minds off personality issues, French dwells at length on rather fringe and uninteresting threads – largely irrelevant family background and affairs, political machinations in Naipaul’s birth country of Trinidad, the humdrum details of foreign trips and so on.

Academics and professional reviewers will argue that such detail is necessary and required in a thorough biographical work. But that doesn’t make them any the less dull for the ordinary reader.

There is much here, rightly, about Naipaul’s output. The author’s work divides opinion among readers but I fall into the fan camp having enjoyed both his fiction (particularly ‘The Enigma of Arrival’) and non-fiction (‘An Area of Darkness’).

french

Patrick French

But French’s accounts of the critical reception of each book is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting. And this is where some of those confusing paragraphs tend to crop up. Like many biographers, French has laboured long on thorough research, having had complete access to the Naipaul archives at the University of Tulsa and spent many hours  conducting face-to-face unrestricted interviews with his subject. The word count demonstrates that French wants us to know how industrious he has been but the extraneous detail is overwhelming and of little interest to anyone not engaged in writing a dissertation on Naipaul.

Critics universally lauded ‘The World Is What It Is’ on its release in 2008 so my comments here are very much against the current. I admire French’s achievement in writing this comprehensive biography but I am left with little sense of really knowing or understanding the man who is its subject. Naipaul once remarked ‘whenever we are reading the biography of a writer … no amount of documentation, however fascinating, can take us there.’ 

Given Naipaul’s nature – elusive, mistrusting, narcissistic, aloof, judgemental – perhaps it is unavoidable that little of the real person comes across. Perhaps there was no real person. Perhaps the man was unknowable, even to himself. An enigma.

2019: The Reading Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.

I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.

In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.

On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.

I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.

And now for the 2019 roll of honour

Shortest Book Of The Year

Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.

Longest Book Of The Year

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.

Biggest Surprise Of 2019

I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.

Best Book By Welsh Author 2019

The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.

Most Disappointing Book 2019

I had three contenders for this award. William Boyd’s Love is Blind and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription were in contention but ultimately I gave the prize to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.

Best Non Fiction Book 2019

I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.

And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.

Best Book In Translation 2019

A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.

Best Book 2019

And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.

There were four books that stood out.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman

How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.

And the prize goes to ……

…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.

My 2019 Life In Books

I’d planned today to disclose my favourite and least favourite books of the year. But it’s been a tiring day and the brain isn’t up to it. So you’ll have to suspend your excitement for just one more day.

In the meantime here’s a fun meme I found on Lizzy’sLiteraryLife today. The origin of this seems clouded in mystery. Lizzy spotted it on Annabel’s website who in turn saw it on Laura’s site.

The idea is to answer some questions using only the titles of books read this year (ie 2019), trying not to use any book more than once.  (Links in the titles will take you to my reviews)

In high school I was:   Becoming by Michelle Obama

People might be surprised by: My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

I will never be:  The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski

My fantasy job is (to be a) Ghostbird by Carole Lovekin

At the end of a long day I needThree Hours (sleep) 

I hate:  Trick(s)  by Domenico Starnone

Wish I had:  (A) Milkman by Anna Burns

My family reunions are: A Fine Balance  by Rohinton Mistry

At a party you’d find me with:  A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

I’ve never been to:  The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

A happy day includes: Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Motto I live by:  Dignity  by Alys Conran

On my bucket list is : Breakfast at Tiffany’s  by Truman Capote and The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrozic

In my next life, I want to have:  A Whole Life  by Robert Seethaler

This was entertaining. Join in the fun and share the books you’d choose to mark 2019

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