Now and again I'll discover a new writer whose work is so brilliant that it's like being a child let loose in a sweet shop. I want to gorge myself on the books, devouring each with single-mindedness I wouldn't apply to any other part of my life. I am fortunate in some ways that I'm semi-retired and therefore can read all I want to. The down side is finding books that can consume such time until I move on to something else, among the wheat there are invariably tares and even the best of writers have an off period.
This hasn't happened to my latest find, Andrew Miller, winner of the 2011 Costa Novel Award. I came upon his first book, 'Ingenious pain' in 2010, the book was then over a decade old but the writing was excellent, the characters unique and the book a delight from beginning to end. Since then I've read each of his five books and each has either been short listed for an award or has been the winner so coming to 'Pure' was to expect a lot of the book.
'Paris, 1785, a year of bones, of grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of Desire. Of Love.' This is the brief description on the back of the book. It is the story of a year in the life of a young, provincial engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte charged by a minister of works, answering to the King, to perform a task that few would want and fewer could carry out without a strong character and an even stronger stomach. Jean has only youth, optimism and a desire to get on in the world, to become a 'modern' man.
The task is to purify the heart of Paris by ridding it of the cemetery and church of Les Innocents, a place that has been swallowing corpses for such a long time it has overtaken the living in terms of numbers. The corpses piled on top of each other throughout the years of plague have sunk into the ground and even the breath of nearby residents has the tang of the grave. Something must be done and only a fool would take the commission. Jean is no fool, but he is just innocent enough to fall for flattery and given a fat purse and the promise of better commissions for the future he decides he cannot say no. (Its possible he wouldn't have survived saying no anyway).
This is the pre-revolutionary Paris, the violence hovering on the surface soon to spill over, but for now the King still holds sway. Jean is sent to stay in lodging in the Rue de la Lingerie, overlooking the cemetery of Les Innocents. At first he surveys the land and makes friends with Armand, the once organist who plays on Jean's immaturity and gets him roaring drunk. In that state he agrees to keeping on Armand, the priest, the sexton and his daughter, the young Jeanette. After idling for a while unsure where to start, he becomes a shadowy figure in the minds of the populace, a slogan of fear slashed on a wall, frightening the true peasants who are horrified that the cemetery is to be razed to the ground but like any bystanders they are looking out for any hand-outs.
Jean manages to recruit a foreman, Lecoeur a man he worked with in a mining community, and thirty strong miners to dig up the ground, pile the bones up prior to removal, and to spread the ground with cleansing agents. But faced with Paris in the depths of winter and the pestilence that will follow a thaw, can he fulfill his mission and keep his own life and that of his friends? Failure, he is promised by the Minister, is not an option; he would rather cut his own throat on the spot. This is what our hero is up against and in a city where innocence is laughed at, he can show no favour or keep his moral integrity intact.
Miller's writing has been praised with each book he writes and with 'Pure' he has outdone his own standards. The writing is pure poetry, yet it has a simplicity that any reader can appreciate without knowing any background to the places he writes about or the times and their events. It is as if he is making it easy for any reader from student to erudite to follow and enjoy. You won't need knowledge of France and yet somehow it creeps into your intelligence that this is a very clever rendering of pre-revolutionary Paris, it's inhabitants, it's mores and values, and it's saints and sinners.
Part of Miller's genius is in creating characters that are of the time and fit naturally into the narrative. He does this with eloquence when needed but can turn a sentence with minimum words to portray a feeling of fitting in with whatever the scene needs. So you find yourself reading about whores and ladies in almost the same sentence and the setting will ring with truth. Somehow you will find yourself there in the story and not just longing to know what happens next, but how you arrive there.
Miller writes with earthiness about the dregs of society and does so without patronizing you. It stands to reason that a naïve young man is not going to clear a cemetery without hard work and hard men to do that work. So the character has to keep morale up and if that means drunkenness and debauchery, then it's a means to an end. But there's a fine line between morale and morals, with things getting out of hand then our hero has to do some quick growing up.
When I read the synopsis I must admit to almost rubbing my hands with glee (metaphorically speaking of course), for this is where Miller outshines any other modern writer I know of. With a cracking good story, a place that is going to be filled with every sort of character from pauper to King, I expected great characters. Some funny peculiar, some funny sad, some just outrageously funny. I wanted (and got) a plethora of society with its feet in the mud and it's head in the clouds. From drunken poet to sly sneaky fiend. From gravedigger to rampant lover and the people who walk on the fringes of society delicately showing their fat behinds.
Miller's young engineer is one of his best characters yet. He often writes of mans fall from grace with attendant pathos, but with Jean-Baptiste I really loved his character and hoped he somehow get out of his fix. I couldn't see anything but disaster in store for him. How could you when the task sounds implausible even today? I can't say if he does manage it and at what cost, but I can say you will come to love the character and hope he doesn't lose all his ideals.
Then there is the fair sex (not so fair when they are turning a trick), who are so numerous in this book it's hard to name more than a few. There's Jean's landlady and her daughter, Ziguette, both fancy him. Then theres the beautiful Heloise who takes up Jean's heart, but can he trust a whore? Miller is excellent at portraying women as the stronger sex, I admire him for that. But then he'll take a stance on something so different it's abruptly striking. You will read a paragraph and wonder where such loveliness came from so quickly. Yet his purpose stays true and his characters rarely stray far from their roots. Expect anything, trust nothing,' seems to be his motto and it works with his characters.
They romp across the page with abandon, frolicking like children, fornicating like dogs, with all the finesse of a three-legged race, yet in the next breath comes a character touched by the sweetness of spring and as light as a maiden's first kiss. Miller cannot write a poor character, he may drag one down in the dirt and dregs of humility, but there is always a hint of the human in his touch.
Is There any Truth In The Story?
Like many of his books Miller has taken an event and a place and made a fascinating story of it. There was a church and cemetery of the same name at the same location and it was destroyed, with the bones on display in the catacombs of Paris. I think Miller probably had a lot of fun with the idea, but basically it's happened.
I never have much success with reviewing Miller's books. I don't think it's anything wrong with the books, but I think I'm sometimes too enthusiastic. I find it hard not to give things away since his writing is so unique I want to give examples. Pure has to be the distillation of every one I've read so far. From the blunt terror of 'Ingenious Pain', to the delicate betrayal in 'One morning like a bird', Miller can make you believe in his world and his people. It's a rare gift and one I'd love others to discover.
If you decide to give it a try then since this is his latest book it won't be cheap new. Amazon is usually quite competitive with prices at £5.84 paperback and available on Kindle.
Thanks for reading.
This review may appear on other sites. ©Lfuller2012.