Pure - Andrew Miller

Pure – Andrew Miller

Book Review of Pure by Andrew Miller

I write a lot of reviews and while I only usually only write about books I enjoy, sometimes I have the pleasure of writing about something really special.  Andrew Miller’s Pure is in this category of “five-star plus”, a book which I hope will be nominated for a prize, being both literary and readable – two qualities which don’t always go together.

Andrew Miller was a new writer to me when I read his last book, One Morning Like a Bird.  I was impressed by the author’s ability to get under the skin of a young Japanese writer in 1940′s Tokyo and it was no surprise to me to learn that an earlier book, Oxygen, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  Evidently a writer to watch.

I was therefore very pleased to have the opportunity to read his new book Pure last week.  Miller is obviously someone who likes to cover completely different eras and locations in his books, for we now find ourselves in pre-Revolutionary Paris in the company of a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, who has been commissioned by a government minister to clear a graveyard.

The church, Les Innocents was closed by Louis XVI leaving behind an overflowing burial ground, the stink from which infests the whole neighbourhood with vile odours, even tainting the food and clothing of those who live nearby.  Barratte is told in his commissioning interview that “during a single outbreak of the plague fifty thousand corpses were buried at Les Innocents . . . corpse upon corpse, the death-carts queuing along the rue Sain-Denis”.  Barratte is told by the Minister that he has to clear, “every last knuckle-bone.  It will require a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness.  Someone not afraid of the barking of priests.  Not given to superstitions”.

Pure – Andrew Miller

In an article in The Guardian, How to Write Fiction, Andrew Miller wrote, “let it be loudly asserted that character, strong characters, are at the heart of all great literature and always will be. Plot, even in detective fiction, is a very secondary matter . . .  a writer who does not create convincing characters will fail. A writer who creates thrilling, troubling, seductive, insistent characters need not worry too much about any other aspect of writing”.

Andrew Miller

Few readers will find fault with that – just think of Charles Dickens for example (if you live in the UK listen to Claire Tomalin’s biography being read on BBC iPlayer while there’s still time) whose characters, Fagin, Pickwick, Micawber, Scrooge, have almost entered the language as descriptors of the qualities and faults they represent.

Miller ably demonstrates his emphasis on characterisation in Pure.  The book is peopled with a wonderful cast of colourful characters, from Jean-Baptiste himself, to the eccentric organist Armand Saint Méard who still inhabits the old church and becomes Barrette’s right-hand man, via a broad cast of landladies, tradesmen, prostitutes, sextons, tailors, labourers and quite a few others whose memory lingers in the mind long after the reader finishes the book.  

I couldn’t help be reminded of Patrick Suskind’s book Perfume which is also set in Paris in the same era and is also peopled by a range of memorable citizens of that teeming city.  

Miller’s story is equally vivid and comes into the category of “if you liked that you’ll enjoy this” (so beloved of Amazon and other online book-sellers).

I found this book to be a vivid portrayal of 18th century Paris.  The author has created several scenes where I felt drawn into this filthy yet always fascinating city.  Armand takes Barrette for a tour of the local galleries – an area of teeming crowds in narrow passages with shops, bars and freak-shows where they bond over three bottles of wine before buying a new green suit for Barrette – which features on the cover of the book and turns out to be an unbearably gaudy item of clothing for Barrette as the troubles of his project almost overwhelm him.

Barrette has the idea that the best way to clear the graveyard would be to recruit a team of miners from his home town near Valenciennes. He returns to Normandy and meets up with his old friend Lecouer, a mine manager who is delighted to have the opportunity to go to Paris as foreman of the thirty miners selected as labourers.  

The miners are a hard working but self-contained crowd.  Speaking an old form of Flemish, they form a tribe of their own in the city with their own habits and code of honour. Lecouer does a good job of managing them but is subject to his own demons which will bring disaster on himself and others.

There are many strands to this account of the project, but for every solemn passage there is humour elsewhere to balance it, not least in the lodging house where the Monnards and their daughter Ziguette host dinner every evening.

A particularly memorable passage is a five page section in chapter 8 when Miller takes us on a night-tour of the people we have met so far as they prepare for bed or already slumber. I was reminded of Dylan Thomas’s opening to Under Milk Wood where he describes the residents of Llaregyb as they sleep.  Miller also demonstrates a similarly lyrical voice while compiling his own catalogue of the sleepers and the still-awake,

Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky.  The temperature is falling.  In an hour or two the first frost flowers will bloom on the grass of parade grounds, parks royal gardens, cemetries.  The streetlamps are guttering.  For their last half-hour they burn a smoky orange and illuminate nothing but themselves.  In the faubourgs of the rich, the watchmen call the hour.

In the rookeries of the poor, blunt figures try to hid in each other’s warmth.  At the Monnards’ in the box-room, under the slates, the servant Maries is kneeling in the dark.  She has rolled up a rug and has her eye to the knothole above the lodger’s room, the lodger’s bed . . .

Ten quiet streets to the east . . . Armand Saint Méard is sprawled in a large bed with a large woman, his landlady and paramour Lisa Saget widowed mother of two children and two who went into the ground.  More asleep than awake, she slips from the bed, squats over a bucket , pisses, dabs herself with the rag, gets back into bed. . .

Pure – Andrew Miller

Leo Robson, reviewing this book in the Guardian, felt that Miller’s plotting was not equal to his characterisation.  I disagree.  I found quite enough plot to keep me going and in any case, the story is about how the vast and nauseous project affects Barrette’s mind.  

We see him develop as a character from an unsophisticated engineer from a deeply rural Normandy, to a man who has become a Parisian, acquainted with the compromises with corruption required of those who live in the city.

Over the months Barrette finds an inner strength which enables him to get by under extremely adverse circumstances and I was reminded of some of Thomas Hardy’s characters who are transformed from mundaneness to a sort of heroism by their suffering.  

The project has its dramas and crises in abundance and while the book is humorous throughout, there is plenty of pathos to balance out the more farcical episodes. The possibly flat ending is all part of what I feel is Miller’s liking of understatement and I thought it worked rather well, enabling those who worked so hard to find a resting place for the thousands of corpses to be replaced by a new cast of those who would inhabit the bustling new market place built on top of the old graveyard.

I think it is unnecessary to view historical novels as “historical”.  Modern writers cannot hope to enter the minds of characters from three centuries ago and from a different culture.  The important feature is plausability,  for we will never be able to judge authenticity unless we  immerse ourselves in the history of the era.

In his book Pure, Andrew Miller has created an entirely plausible scenario and Jean-Baptiste Barratte is to me a convincing creation who fits bravely into the repellent situations he finds himself in.