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