I first read Andrew Miller back in 2001 when he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for “Oxygen”. I must admit I did have to take the novel down from the shelf to remind myself what is was about, but I will never forget the Booker that year, it was when Peter Carey won for “True History of the Kelly Gang” (a hugely over rated piece of writing in my opinion) over my favourite Ian McEwan novel “Atonement”. That year also featured Ali Smith’s “Hotel World”, David Mitchell’s “number9dream” and Rachel Seiffert’s “The Dark Room”, which has been wonderfully adapted into the Australian/German co-produced movie “Lore”. I wasn’t reading the IMPAC Dublin Awards until a few years ago so missed the year Andrew Miller won with his debut “Ingenious Pain”. His latest novel. “Pure” is set in Paris, 1785 (or so the back cover tells us), and our protagonist Jean-Baptiste Baratte is awaiting his fate in an anteroom of the Palace of Versailles. We soon learn that he is an engineer by trade (has made a small insignificant bridge on a private property) and the “minister” hires him to clean up the cemetery of les Innocents as it has been “swallowing the corpses of Paris for longer than anyone can remember”. The effects are horrendous, the smell disgusting, the locals their breath is tainted, “it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself.”
And so we follow the adventures of Jean-Baptiste as he works in Paris, hiring ex-miners to clear the graveyard and planning for the demolition of the church. He meets a vast array of characters, the organ player, his host family, the family who live on the cemetery grounds, various miners and ladies of the night. This is a novel which promises much – could Jean-Baptiste be a modern day Faust? Could the impending demise of the cemetery be linked to his own personal demise? The tight language that takes you right into the heart of Paris in the late 1700’s leads you to believe so…
A girl is crossing the burying ground of les Innocents. In one hand, from a length of twine knotted about its feet, she carries a hen; in the other a wicker basket full of vegetables, some fruit, a dark loaf. She was, as usual, one of the first at the market, her slight figure, the thick auburn hair, a familiar sight among the servants who make up the greater part of the early trade. Where she stops, the stall-holder never tries to cheat her. Nor does she need to squeeze and plump the produce, the sniff or haggle like the cook’s maids with their chapped fingers, or those bony matriarchs of pared-down households who live a peg or two above destitution, She is served quickly, respectfully. Perhaps she will be asked about her grandfather’s health, his stiffening joints, but no one will detain her long. It is not that they dislike her. What is there to dislike about Jeanne? But she comes from the other side of the cemetery wall, a place, in this last quarter of the eighteenth century, many people would prefer not to be reminded of. She is sweet, pretty, well mannered, She is also the little auburn-haired emissary of death.
I spent the first half of the novel wondering how the multi layers of death, pestilence, destruction and self-gratification would play out. I then spent the last half of the novel wondering why it was meandering to its logical conclusion. There were great passages describing Jean-Baptiste’s cramping innards, which simply led nowhere, a reoccurring theme of headaches, which simply filled in pages and an “affair” of the heart that simply had no real consequences.
Although an enjoyable read personally I felt this fell a little flat, that is not to say it isn’t a novel worth reading, simply I believe it is not up to the same lofty standards as a couple of others on the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist. And how this beat Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” in the 2011 Costa Book Awards is beyond me, that doesn’t auger well for me to be venturing onto that list for reading material.