Friday, 30 March 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is the well deserving winner of the Costa Book Award for Best Novel in 2011. His winning entry, Pure, begins as one of those traditional tales about a young man from the country who travels to the city to make his name and fortune. 


Jean-Baptiste is an engineer, but the only engineering feat he has achieved is a small ornamental bridge over a corner of a nobleman’s lake. Suddenly he’s working for the King, shifting an entire cemetery that is so overcrowded, it is contaminating the soil and water of its surrounding Parisian neighbourhood – to say nothing of the smell! The pressure on Jean-Baptiste is immense, and the distractions of the big city, introduced by Armand, the church organist, threaten to undermine his best efforts and diminish his funds.

Andrew Miller paints a colourful picture of the time, with a cast of intriguing characters – the mad priest; the melancholy, alcoholic best friend; the beautiful and mysterious whore. The story is set against a backdrop of impending revolution – Armand and his friends make night-time forays through the city, painting inflammatory graffiti against the king.

While the landscape of the novel may seem claustrophobic – the poky room Jean-Baptiste rents, his walled-in cemetery with its piles of bones, the narrow streets where he frequently gets lost - there are large ideas at play here:  developments in science and engineering, the overthrow of old ideas and a doomed regime. Dramatic events happen too – love and death, rape and suicide, desire and friendship.

All this is knitted together with dark humour and the brisk and straightforward writing moves the plot along nicely. Pure is a novel quite unlike anything else you are likely to read in a long time... Posted by JAM


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