Set in the pre-revolutionary period of France, the central character of Andrew Miller’s Pure is a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who takes up the job for demolishing the over-stuffed Les Innocents cemetery. Jean is organized like any engineer should be and the novel details his plans for the demolition. The book is full of sensational events: a murderous assault by someone you least expect, rape, suicide, and surprises that pop up when they dig up the cemetery.
The subject matter is obviously not sunny, but that did not make me give up the novel. One of the reasons could be that there were many events of sensational nature that kept me engrossed. But another reason could be the insights into Jean’s nature: He would like to believe that he is a rational human being (at night, just before sleeping, his usual ritual is to make himself believe in the power of reason), but then the novel shows that he acts sometimes irrationally.
Pure is brimming with mysterious characters, some of whom end up where I thought they will not end up:
Lecoeur: An old mate of Jean who helps with the demolition.
Armand: An organist, becomes a mate of Jean. He likes the bottle and also likes to tease Jean occasionally. But I really didn’t understand the motivation for him to help Jean.
The miners: Hired by Jean who move from Valenciennes to demolish the cemetery. I was curious to know more about them throughout the novel and had made a wild guess that they would be somehow connected with the revolution. I would have probably liked some insight on where they will end up.
Monnards: The family with whom Jean stays in Paris. They have a daughter Ziguette and a servant, Marie, and a cat.
Heloise: The mysterious woman to whom Jean is attracted.
Guillotin: A jovial doctor who has a fascination for human skulls and bones.
Miller’s writing is simple, clear, and consistent with the times of that period, for example, there is a mention of the defacing of the government notices and the poverty of villages.
In short, Pure is an incredible book with imaginative writing.