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Pure by Andrew Miller

Pure (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Andrew Miller

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6794614,070 (3.68)136
Authors:Andrew Miller
Info:Sceptre (2012), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:historical fiction

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Pure by Andrew Miller (2011)

  1. 10
    The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris (clfisha)
    clfisha: Anyone interested in the creation of Paris Catacombs and in charnel houses/ossuaries in general this is a great non-fiction coffee table book.

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Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young French engineer, arrives in 1785 Paris and receives the assignment to empty the Les Innocents cemetery, which is overflowing and having an ... erm ... environmental impact on the surrounding area. Baratte finds lodgings with a local family, the Monnards, and hires a team of laborers from a mine, with his friend Lecoeur as foreman. The cemetery also includes a church, no longer in use but with a staff that includes a priest, sexton and organist. As excavation begins the enormity of Baratte's task becomes evident. The cemetery is sub-divided and the crew tackles one large pit at a time. Remains must be moved, and the pit refilled. The laborers initially see their new jobs as a step up from working in a dangerous mine, but Baratte faces one challenge after another in motivating the laborers and providing for their basic needs.

Baratte also must deal with a wide variety of emotions from the local residents. Some take great interest in the project and lend their talents to providing for the laborers. Others see the cemetery as an institution that should not be tampered with. As the story progresses, Baratte moves from idealistic and naive to someone more hardened, resigned, and at times even desperate. Baratte and the organist Armand strike up a friendship, and Armand helps him find his way with the locals. But Baratte's friendship with Lecoeur is tested as men who were once peers adjust to a new working relationship, and the stress of the project begins taking its toll. Three women play pivotal roles in the community and are just as interesting as those working on the excavation. Their stories enhance the dramatic tension and greatly enrich this novel. ( )
5 vote lauralkeet | Mar 22, 2015 |
Oh the smell! Paris in 1785 stank. Not only was the ancient graveyard of Les Innocents putrid because it was so full of corpses they couldn't decay, but the people didn’t bathe and hardly washed and then there were chamber pots under beds, in cupboards, behind screens and even in the corner of the box at the opera. In this sense the title of the book, Pure, is a oxymoron. Pooh’s and piss perfuming everywhere!

That, of course, must be the author’s intent. There are two major aspects of this novel. On the one hand there is the powerful overriding metaphor that is the fact of the book. Secondly there is the sweet story of a young man with talent and aspiration who reconciles his notion of himself in his future with the reality of himself as a person as he goes through a major proving moment (a year) and settles to love with a woman and they with the companionship of friends.

Through history any reader knows that the monumental French Revolution is only four years away. The Revolution is a cornerstone event in European civilisation and this civilisation’s dominance in the contemporary world. Bound with the names of locations and characters a meta table of symbols is laid out against which the saccharine (though stinky) story of the novel’s people plays out. Les Innocents alludes to Herod the king killing the innocent children. The central character Jean-Baptist Barrate is also John the Baptist and Barrate is a churn – a butter churn. Here is John the Baptist paving the way for the saviour (the Revolution?) turning over the foundation of the Catholic Church – which in France at the time was as corrupt as all get out. Lurking kindly in the story is Dr Guillotin studying life in the detritus of the corpses as they come from the ground. He is the historical character who as a Deputy in the first Assembly of the people after the revolution, and as a stern advocate against the death penalty, convinced the Deputies that if they were insistent on having a death penalty to do it as instantly as possible with Antoine Louis’s invention. (Severing the blood flow from the heart to the brain immediately reduces the cerebral profusion pressure and the neurones in the brain die instantly.)

So, in Pure, we have this whacking huge metaphor as a backdrop to what is a sweet (innocent?) every day tale of a young man maturing. There is nothing outstanding in that story, lots of books have done that better. Andrew Millers writing is okay – good but not exceptional. Some of the vignettes with curious characters he drops into the story are witty. The importance of this book is the metaphor; the story, not so much. ( )
  Edwinrelf | Mar 10, 2015 |
I liked this book quite a bit. In 1785 a young engineer is tasked with removing a cemetery in the center of Paris that stinks and affects the health of all the inhabitants. He hires a team of miners and they set to work on the distasteful work of digging out the bones, and transporting them to their new home. Metaphorically, of course, the cemetery is the ancien regime itself, and the work of dismantling the cemetery foreshadows the revolution that is on the horizon. The engineer undergoes a transformation along the way from naive idealistic young man to a competent manager who has a clearer understanding of life and what gives it meaning. ( )
  aprille | Jan 3, 2015 |
This has got to be one of the most beautifully written contemporary British novels of recent years. Andrew Miller's writing is a revelation: apparently effortless, wonderfully evocative prose to savour that conjures up the Paris quarter of les Halles and the cemetery of les Innocents before the start of the French Revolution, but with a palpable civil unrest already tainting the air, along with the stink of the overflowing burial ground. From the first sentence the reader is transported through time and space, following Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the engineer from Normandy, as he tries to make his way in the capital, tasked with the almost impossible: how to empty the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, and destroy its church and sexton's house, in order to purify the Paris air? Over the subsequent twelve months, we follow Jean-Baptiste and an eclectic assortment of friends and acquaintances as they encounter bones dating back centuries, mummified corpses, accidental death and suicide, rape and insanity, but also friendship and love, leaving me quite breathless at the end. Wonderful stuff that could inspire someone to become a writer; heartily recommended. ( )
  passion4reading | Jun 6, 2014 |
Pure by Andrew Miller is set in the 19th Century and takes place amidst Les Innocents, the oldest cemetery in Paris. In 1875, the cemetery has been closed to burials for 5 years because it is overflowing with corpses and emitting a foul stench that permeates the air and taints anything growing in the ground nearby.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young Engineer employed by the Minister to demolish the Les Innocents Cemetery and relocate the human remains to a secondary site outside the city of Paris. (The location is known to us now as the Catacombs of Paris).

Jean-Baptiste struggles with the morality of the project and where to find men willing to carry out the dark task of disturbing the final resting place of thousands of Parisian occupants.

Pure is rich in a sense of place and I really felt as though I were in Paris with the protagonist. The descriptions of the church, the charnel houses, the graveyards and the massive organ inside the church were so evocative I was quick to build a clear picture in my mind of this grisly yet soulful place. So much so, that when I stopped reading Pure to do some private reading about Les Innocents, the sketches were exactly what I'd pictured in my mind. The cemetery had been operating from the middle ages until 1780, and was said to contain the remains of 2 million people.

The true historical nature of the subject matter is the real hero here, and it's no surprise that Pure won the Costa Book Award in 2011 for "Best Novel" and "Book of the Year." Despite the dark content, there are several opportunities to smile throughout the novel, and here's one I'd like to share from page 51:

"He must read, work, think. He...pulls close the candle and opens his copy of Buffon's Histoire Naturelle Volume II. A piece of pale straw is his bookmark. He frowns over the page. The taxonomy of fish. Good. Excellent. He manages an entire paragraph before the words swim away from him in black, flickering shoals..."

I loved that quote, and hopefully it gives you an insight into Andrew Miller's writing style. Pure is not a book for everyone, it's gruesome and confronting and the smells alone might be enough to deter a brave reader, but it covers a fascinating event in history and one this reader definitely didn't want to shy away from. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | May 24, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Flowers bloom again in the disinterred cemetery. Sunlight illuminates the darkness through the broken roof of the church. Though progress brings suffering and death, the balance, as Baratte knows, "will still be in your favour". As Miller proves with this dazzling novel, it is not certainty we need but courage, now as much as ever, before we too are reduced to bones.
added by riverwillow | editThe Guardian, Clare Clark (Jun 24, 2011)
Purifying centuries of decaying mortality and removing the miasma that permeates the dwellings, skin and even food of the area is neither simple nor necessarily popular. Miller threads into this fabric subtle ideas about modernity, glancing at Voltaire, public health and the seditious graffiti that anticipate the revolutionary fervour of 1789 - just four years away.
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The time will come when the sun will shine only on free men who have no master but their reason. Marquis de Condorcet
In memory of my father, Dr Keith Miller, and of my friends, Patrick Warren and George Lachlan Brown.
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A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
How do you remove
A cemetery in Paris?
Bone by bone, it seems.

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Engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is tasked with emptying an overflowing cemetery in Paris in 1785, work he considers noble until he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery parallels his own fate and the demise of social order.

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