Pure is the kind of book that, had it not won the Costa Prize last year, might well have slipped under many people’s radars. Deceptively simple and remarkably restrained, Andrew Miller’s latest novel does not deliver the typical plot punches and sentimental release to which many readers are accustomed. This is no bad thing. Pure is an intelligent, well-crafted and subtly written novel that fully deserves to have been recognised by a literary award.
Set in Paris in 1785, this is a novel simmering with the ideas and tensions that will come to the fore during the French Revolution, just four years later. Our protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineering graduate from provincial Normandy instilled with all the high ideals of youth. He has been thrust into Parisian life, interviewed at the mirrored, decadent Palace of Versailles and tasked with dismantling and destroying the ancient, filth-ridden and diseased cemetery of Les Innocents. This job might not represent the high feats of modern and progressive engineering to which he aspires, but it is an appropriate mission for the enlightened man of reason our hero believes himself to be. He will bring down the crumbling church and cemetery, and in their place he will inject light, reason and modernity…
However, things do not turn out quite as expected. His elegant aspirations are dismantled along with the cemetery and brought down to flounder in the same muck as the inhabitants of Les Innocents – both alive and dead – and we realise he has been naïve as we have. For this is not the silk-gloved and dainty-cake-adorned Paris of Marie Antoinette – this is a fusty, dark and earthy Paris, rich with odours, disease and death. Chamber pots, bones, menacing graffiti and endless, fetid pits are the images that loom over Jean-Baptiste, and the images that will change him.
Despite this shadowy subject matter, one of the most striking aspects of this novel is the neat and precise structure that encloses the teeming violence and despair. We see just one year in our protagonist’s life – a year in which he digs up the bones of Paris’s past, pulls down an ancient church, is brutally attacked, falls in love, and is led to question his own identity and beliefs – and this year, in elegant symbolism, both ends and begins in the Palace of Versailles. There are times, though, when the symbolism of Pure seems a little forced and artificial, especially that which details the contrast between light and dark. In general, though, the whole novel works as a carefully constructed and brilliantly executed conceit of a decaying city teetering on the edge of a great but yet-unknown change.
Macabre, vivid and stark, Andrew Miller’s sixth novel brilliantly brings to life the authentic character of eighteenth-century Paris. This is a novel about the past, about poverty, death, violence, rape and disease – but it is also about identity, the individual, society, the future and hope. These contrasts are expressed in sharply intelligent and precise prose, which in turn acts as the ideal counterpart to the seemingly straightforward plot. An unassuming historical novel this may seem, but Pure is a clever, rich and moving tale that has been rightly rewarded with literary acclaim.
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