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Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it. At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.
I’ve been a fan of Andrew Miller since revelling in his earlier and marvellous book, Oxygen, so was delighted to pick this Costa Award-winning novel up a while back.
It certainly has the trademark quiet lyricism that I so loved in Oxygen, and the historical setting adds a grounding solidity to the text. It set off the same echoes in me that Girl With A Pearl Earring did many years back, perhaps because of that blend of lyricism and practical historical detail both books share. Here, the main character, Jean-Baptiste, is an outsider in Paris and tasked by royal decree with transporting the contents of a destroyed cemetery to an alternative location. He is sworn to secrecy as far as possible and must therefore face the curiosity and antagonism of locals from a position of some weakness. As a result, the reader meets the people and experiences the whole scenario though Jean-Baptiste’s eyes, so that as our hero acclimatises and works through the situation, so in some measure do we.
I must confess however that I didn’t find the plot quite as gripping as I’d anticipated. Even though the writing is very beautiful, there was a long section of the novel where I found the details about the engineering, the digging up of the bones of long dead people and the intricate local work routines and politics really rather dull. I’m not sure it was entirely necessary to take us through every single stage of the project. The key focus should have remained with the people, their shifting relationships and loyalties and the reasons behind that. Yes, I admire Miller for the copious amounts of research on historical engineering methods he’s obviously done, but quite honestly less is most definitely more when it comes to fiction. On the other hand, I have to confess that these details made me feel constrained and harried during my reading of the novel (whereas Oxygen made me feel more expansive and freer) and I suspect this is exactly how Miller wanted me to react, as it’s the same series of emotions our main character must face.
Anyway, what really mattered to me was the relationship between Jean-Baptiste and his landlord and landlord’s family, especially later in the book where an act of physical violence against him changes everything. From that point on, the novel really began to come alive – and from having been in a semi-comatose and constrained state, I was gratefully transported into the developing hotbed of pain, fear and simmering resentment that seeps through the latter sections of the book towards the dramatic denouement.
I also thought the developing friendship and affair between Jean-Baptiste and the outcast foreigner Heloise is subtly and magnificently portrayed, and immensely satisfying on an emotional level, so thank you, Mr Miller, for that.
Finally, I enjoyed the way the ending brings us full-circle back to Versailles where our hero originally received his commission. But what a great deal has changed between the beginning and this ending, and how very different are Jean-Baptiste’s decisions and actions. It’s a delicious and ironic epigraph to this lyrical if perhaps overlong novel.
Pure, Sceptre 2012, ISBN 978-1-444-72428-8
Also available as an ebook
[Anne is rather fond of cemeteries but would be extremely reluctant to start digging one up. She is taking part in National Novel Writing Month this year and her current wordcount is 52170 words, well gosh.]