I don’t read much historical fiction. Too often, I feel with as if the author wants to take me through a time tunnel as a tour guide. The prose comes off as forced, a sort of golly-gee quality to it. Tropes abound. The author seems to gawk. And I squirm. (I’m sure this is my problem.)
When the writing is as good as Andrew Miller’s in Pure, count me in. Character and setting mesh. Pure is the story of a stranger in a strange land, an engineer from Normandy arriving in the big city of Paris in 1785. His task? The fairly monumental chore of cleaning out the vast pits a church called les Innocents in the center of Paris. The cemetery “has been swallowing the corpses of Paris for longer than anyone can remember,” says the minister who quizzes Jean-Baptiste Baratte about his willingness to tackle the job. “They tell me that during a single outbreak of the plague fifty thousand corpses were buried at les Innocents in less than a month.” There are “vast legions” of the dead “packed into a smudge of earth no bigger than a potato field.”
And now, it stinks. (You think?) It’s unsanitary, it is “poisoning the city.”
Baratte’s job is to make the city “sweet again.” He is asked to dispose of the corpses, down to “every last knucklebone.”
And we’re off, thoroughly immersed in the moment and seeing what lies ahead. The first sparks of the French Revolution are four years in the future. The foreshadowing is understated. We see the Bastille. We meet Dr. Guillotin. The atmosphere is visceral. Because I listened on audio CD, I’m going to credit writer Kira Cochrane (in her fine review and interview with Miller in The Guardian) for noting the following imagery: An alley full of cheese sellers is “a curious clogged vein of a street.” A man pulls “at the lobes of his ears as though he were milking a pair of tiny udders.” A calf’s head tastes as though “pickled in its own tears.”
Death is everywhere, but Pure is full of life. Baratte is between worlds. The city is transitioning. Baratte’s task requires negotiations and deliberations and through his interactions we get glimpses of the old guard and the seeds of the uprising. The scent of Paris starts clinging to Baratte and, when he returns to his hometown, the locals smell it on him.
Baratte contemplates his own fate and wonders where his new path will lead, knowing full well that exposure to the project in Paris has deeply altered the course of his life. On a Christmas morning in a Protestant church in Normandy, the local pastor is Dutch and he speaks French “with an accent Jean-Baptiste has always found faintly comical.” The pastor is reading from either Ezekiel or Isaiah. Baratte isn’t sure which book it is. In fact, the pastor isn’t reading – he knows this passage by heart and the pages are too worn to read, anyway. The pastor’s warnings are anything but comical. “Desolation alone is left in the city and the gate is broken into pieces . . . If a man runs from the rattle of the snare, he will fall into the pit; if he climbs out of the pit, he will be caught in the trap . . .”
The pastor “would not consider it kind to spare them. At length—great length—he shuts the book and the little congregation is left to pick through their consciences in silence, while Jean-Baptiste, hat in hand but head unbowed, looks out at the sky and is lost for a time in the beauty and mystery of what is most ordinary.”
Miller sees beauty and mystery in the ordinary—and in the extraordinary events in Pure. Miller knows it wouldn’t be kind to spare us from an up-close look at raising the dead and a fruitless effort to erase the past. In this piece of historical fiction, we know what’s coming. The bones will begin piling up again, all too soon.