With a view of eighteenth century Paris that usually does not appear in novels, Andrew Miller uses the cemetery at Les Innocents as the setting for Pure. Paris, at the time when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were Americans abroad, was stinking from the sludge of a fourth century burial ground that was a money-maker for the church – until its decaying rot seeped into everything – even the water. King Louis XVI finally ordered its closing. Based on real events, Pure has all the draw of the French political intrigue before the Revolution, while chronicling one of the many transformations of Paris.
Although he tells his family in Normandy that he is overseeing structural changes to the church to improve the health of those living in the quarter, the young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, plans the removal of the bones, the total demolition of the church building, and a purification of the grounds to remove the unearthly smell from the open graves and decomposing bodies. The story follows Baratte through a year “of bones, grave-dirt, relentless work… mummified corpses and chanting priests…rape, suicide, sudden death”; he also finds love and friendship.
Miller’s imagery is so good, you will smell the stench from the rotting grounds and the breath of those who live nearby. As the story unfolds, Baratte’s task becomes a metaphor for the cleansing of the old French aristocratic rot, with references to the famous uprising that is brewing – Dr. Guillotin plays a minor role in the action. But the story that kept me reading was that of the young country boy facing his first real job – a horrible one that he cannot quit – although he tries. He changes through the experience – just like the landscape – and it was a pleasure to follow Miller’s tale of historical fiction.