Pure by Andrew Miller

When Pure won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year Award, the general critical consensus was that Andrew Miller’s time had arrived. Here was an author who was much acclaimed and admired who really deserved to break through and become a bestseller.

But my goodness, does Miller make it hard to be popular. He must be the most bloody-minded author out there and probably sends his poor agent (if he has one) into a state of despair.

Let’s examine the evidence.

First of all, that anonymous one-word title, which tells us nothing about the book. The British publisher hasn’t helped by lumbering the novel with a dull monochrome cover.

Pure by Andrew Miller

Then there’s the fact that the setting is France in the 1780s. However, Miller doesn’t bother to set it in the exciting maelstrom of the French Revolution. Stubbornly, he tells his story in the years beforehand, with only a light foreshadowing of the turmoil to come.

Stories of pre-revolution France tend to be decadent bodice-rippers dominated by lecherous aristocrats chasing young women. Miller’s tale is altogether more sombre. Not to say macabre.

Pure is the story of a young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who is charged with the task of destroying the cemetery and church of Les Innocents in the heart of Paris, situated where the shopping centre of Les Halles now stands. Built centuries ago, the cemetery has grown so large that there is no room for further graves, and a foul miasma has settled over the neighbourhood. Baratte must demolish this church and dig up the mass graves where bones are piled on bones.

It’s a novel that breaks all the rules of modern publishing. Yet it is strangely engrossing. Miller’s Paris feels like a real city with a beating heart:

they pass into the small streets behind the rue Saint-Antoine. The city is theirs – they see no one, hear no one. It is that brief hour, the turning of the city’s tide, when the last of the wine shops have thrown out their rabble but before the market carts appear, the big six-wheelers with their lanterns swinging from their sides, or the strings of packhorses, miserable beasts that have walked all night from farms and country gardens, their panniers creaking.

Although it lapses into melodrama at times, Pure is clearly the work of a true artist. I admire Miller’s dogged determination to tell this dour, unpromising tale. It helps that he is such a wonderful stylist:

Snow has been threatening for hours. Now, just as the engineer enters the compound, it begins to fall. He remembers Lacoeur’s place; his own was next to it for nigh on a year, the second and third divisions respectively of the second block. Outside his front window, Lacoeur used to have a small garden, a patch of worked ground in which, in summer, he grew onions and lettuces, some marigolds. There is no trace of it now.

He raps at the door, waits, knocks again. Snow is settling on his shoulders, the brim of his hat.

If you loved Perfume by Patrick Süskind, You’ll like Pure, although this is not the tale of a murderer. Even so, the demolition of the church and cemetery will have dire consequences for almost everyone involved.

As a novel, Pure is unique. For once, I agree with the critics. Andrew Miller is an author who deserves a much wider readership. This is as good a place as any to start — this ossuary won’t bury his career.