Pure by Andrew Miller (2011) 346 p.

Towards the end of the 18th century, at the heart of the Enlightenment, the cemetery Les Innocents at the centre of Paris is full. The ground is swollen with the dead. Basement walls break open under the pressure, corpses tumbling into them. The very air is tainted, poisoning the food and the breath of those who live nearby.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young provincial engineer, is hired by the government to “purify” it – to dig the corpses up, remove the tainted earth, make the place clean again. From the very beginning he is uneasy about the project, sitting on a bench outside the palace in Versailles after he is issued his orders, trying to convince himself that “it cannot be impossible to conceive of this work as something worthy, serious. Something for the greater good.”

Pure is a heavily allegorical novel, the destruction of the cemetery tearing apart Baratte himself, and prefacing the greater “purification” that is to come with the French Revolution, just a few short years away. I suspect some of the novel’s metaphors and allegories are quite explicit, but if your knowledge of French history is thin – as mine is – you might have trouble picking up on them.

Pure is also one of those novels that’s difficult to review, because I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it. I would describe it as: “good… not great.” It’s certainly not forgettable; the concept is fascinating, and it creates a powerful image of a cemetery being disinterred, bone by bone, fires burning day and night, a kind of hell at the heart of Paris. But – although it’s certainly a good, competent novel, and one that has received critical acclaim – I personally wasn’t captured by it.

It does, however, have the most awesome cover ever. (And yes, I know where it comes from.)

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