• February reading suggestion: Pure by Andrew Miller

This month our reading suggestion is a book that’s generated a huge amount of buzz on account of recently having won a Costa Book Award. This can sometimes be the last thing that encourages you to read a book, since it appears everywhere you look, and there are dozens of reserves on the library copies. But we hear this one is well worth the trouble and we recommend it unhesitatingly.

Pure is a historical novel that tells the story of a very particular moment in the history of Paris. France is on its way towards a cataclysmic political upheaval and the city itself is overflowing – with living people and with corpses, who can no longer be contained or accommodated in the spaces put aside for them. It’s time for a clear-out in more than one sense, and the man that must help tackle this task is a young engineer by the name of Jean-Baptiste Baratte.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise - photo by Flickr user Mayanais

Cimetière du Père Lachaise - photo by Flickr user Mayanais. Click on image for full credit and licence.

So, what’s it about, then?

Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian’s review of the book:

France, in the turbulent years before the revolution… A young man of humble background, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is ordered to exhume the vast and ancient cemetery of Les Innocents in the poor Parisian quarter of Les Halles and demolish its church. No one knows how many bodies are buried there – it is claimed that during one outbreak of the plague the graveyard received 50,000 in less than a month – but it has recently begun to burst its banks, poisoning the city and spreading “moral disturbance”. Baratte’s hiring is inadvertent – he is at first mistaken for someone else – but it is to herald the beginning of a year “unlike any other he has lived”.

Baratte finds that the stink of the dead dominates the quarter, fouling the air and tainting even the breath of those who live there. The vast smoke-blackened church that presides over the graveyard obliterates the light. And yet, as the engineer begins his grisly excavations, he finds that the residents of this poor and labyrinthine district have a powerful attachment to both. There are also those who support his work, among them a kindly doctor, Guillotin. Read the full review here…

Learn more about Pure:

Some things to think about

  • Pure is a parable about the French Revolution. How successfully do you feel the parable was integrated into the story? Did it help you form a view, or a different view, of the events of that time?
  • The character of Baratte is in many ways a study in contradictions – traditional versus modern, rational versus religious. How did you relate to the character? Did you feel he was a successful portrayal?
  • Think about the sensory information the author includes in this tale – the use of sights, sounds, smells and sensations. How do you think this contributes to the success (or otherwise) of the novel?
  • How did you feel about the way the author structured his narrative – it’s very different to tales with a more conventional narrative structure, for instance with much occurring in the present tense or in a disconnected, dream-like fashion. Did this work for you or not?
  • The Telegraph says in its review: “Historical fiction at its best engages with the concerns of the modern age through the particular dramas of people living in a different time or place… nowhere is this more true than in Andrew Miller’s Pure, a hugely worthy winner of the Costa.” Do you agree with part or all of this statement?

If you decide to read this, leave a comment and let others know what you made of it. You might find the questions helpful in framing your thoughts, or you might have something completely original to contribute. And you can also let others know about your comment via our virtual reading group which you can access from the right-hand column.

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