Pure by Andrew Miller


If you’re in the mood to read but are having difficulty settling into a book that piques your interest, try Pure by Andrew Miller. Not because it won the Costa Book of the Year Award back in 2011, but because it’s quite possibly unlike anything else you’ve read.

Set in Paris in 1785, the premise is simple enough. A young, provincial engineer is charged by the king with demolishing an old church and clearing the surrounding cemetery. Bone by bone. That’s it. And while it would be a stretch to say the book is based on a true story — the main characters are entirely Miller’s creation — the cemetery, les Innocents, did exist and was cleared.

Yet despite the grizzly backdrop, the power within Pure lies in the detail and not in the drama. Miller doesn’t roll on his back in the gore. He observes through both ends of the telescope. As the novel progresses, any initial concern for the dead is deftly replaced by a more pressing concern for the living, both within and without the cemetery walls. Paris is on the brink of revolution. The city is cold, dark, dangerous. And stinks.

We can smell the smell. Feel the cold. Appreciate the fire. The author provides precisely enough detail for the reader to supply the rest. Thinking back, and I only finished this book a couple of days ago, I cannot separate what Miller actually wrote versus the visions that remain in my mind’s eye.

Anyone with a little interest in social history and an appreciation of a story well told will enjoy Pure. Or, at the very least, will be sucked in too deep to climb out before the end.

Quotes from Pure:

“It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself.”

“The poverty of the villages is almost picturesque from the windows of a coach that is not stopping.”

“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.”

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