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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.

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