Pure, by Andrew Miller, was the Costa Book of the Year in 2011. I’d never really paid much attention to the Costa Awards, formerly the Whitbread Awards, but apparently, the prize is given annually to outstanding novels by writers from the U.K. and Ireland, with emphasis on a novel’s readability and entertainment factor. So, basically, it’s a like the Booker Prize for the masses.
“Readable and entertaining”…well if you put it that way, then Pure does in fact deserve the Costa Award in 2011. A historical fiction set in Paris in 1785, Pure tells the story of provincial engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, commissioned by the Minister to relocate / destroy, the Les Innocents Cemetery, Paris’ largest and oldest cemetery.
Opened sometime in the Middle Ages, Les Innocents, by the 18th Century, has become overcrowded and unusable, mainly composed of mass graves. The condition of the burial ground has deteriorated over the years, resulting in the contamination of its neighboring communities – both of water, and air. Though the church and cemetery were surrounded by walls, the stench of the dead could not be contained and it wafted out to the streets and homes surrounding the site. Now, it was up to Baratte, a greenhorn from Normandy, fresh out of the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussees, to rid the neighborhood of its unsanitary existence. Will Baratte, a young, naive, country bumpkin, survive the dangerous streets of Paris? Will he be able to pull off such a daunting task, with the little to no experience he has? Will Baratte be able to purify Paris?
Though a historical fiction, Pure is a light and fun read, very modern and a bit satirical. As Baratte goes about his seemingly insurmountable task of removing the millions of bones in Les Innocents, it becomes clear early on that Pure is not just about the task of clearing Les Innocents. It’s really more about the relationships of people with each other, and their surroundings; of people who have lived all their lives outside or inside the walls of Les Innocents, and cannot imagine their lives without it. But mostly, it is about Baratte and his transformation from an idealistic, inexperienced, stick-in-the-mud Norman, to a confident, street-wise, modern Parisian.
Though it has all the makings of a mysterious ghost story – an abandoned cemetery, a lunatic priest living in the rafters of a church, excavated tombs, catacombs, and post-mortem autopsies, Pure, is, disappointingly macabre free. Though some allusions are made about hybrid creatures lurking in the cemetery’s tunnels and catacombs, aside from the mysterious scratching on closed doors from time to time, Pure is completely without ghostly presence and mysterious occurrences.
Pure is a strange little book, and though it could have used a bit more supernatural elements, it is still an intriguing novel that has a little bit of everything – comedy, satire, love, sex, mystery, and even elephants. All in all, the novel was satisfactory; a bit disappointing, because I thought I’d like it more than I actually did , but at least I didn’t think it was a total waste of time. This is a good novel for those who want something a bit out of the ordinary, or for when you’re in the mood for something quirky, strange, and historical.
Pure (2011) – Andrew Miller
Sceptre; 342 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3/5