This inventive and surprising novel is set in Paris in 1785, four years before the Revolution, and its protagonist, a young engineer named Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is more like James Dyer [of Ingenious Pain] than like Casanova [of Casanova in Love]. He thinks of himself as a man of the Enlightenment and a student of Voltaire, a rationalist and a freethinker who believes above all in the power of reason … What keeps the novel from flying off into allegory is its extraordinary descriptiveness. Pure is grounded in the physical world, which it records with great particularity … It’s elegantly written and intricately constructed, with an ending that, like those mirrors at Versailles, cleverly reflects the beginning. And yet for all its neatness, Pure is ultimately a book about impurity, what Baratte comes to recognize as ‘the world’s fabulous dirt.’ It’s an artful, carefully wrought novel that ultimately comes down in favor of mess.
A novel of ideas disguised as a ghost story, voluptuously atmospheric, Pure exerts a sensual hold over the reader … Now a subterranean wall separating the necropolis from the city of the living has collapsed, and an effluvium of putrefaction is penetrating the dwellings around the cemetery, extinguishing candles, tainting food and even precipitating ‘moral disturbances, particularly among the young.’ For the author’s purposes, cleaning up the mess is a metaphor grand enough to accommodate an existential battle between dark and light, outmoded and enlightened, decay and purity … Miller’s gift for characterization and ability to summon up a world that convinces absolutely, even though it never was.
Into this pungent historical setting wafts Miller with a grave story about a man charged with emptying the cemetery and tearing down the church. It’s Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth in reverse. Miller’s hero, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is a work of fiction, but the 1785 country Miller describes is redolent of real life … Jean-Baptiste is an endearing fellow, serious and earnest, torn between his ambitions and his good nature. He’s so committed to rational self-improvement that every night in bed he recites a little godless affirmation about his devotion to reason. He prides himself ‘on possessing a trained and shadowless mind,’ but just wait till the miasma of the graveyard begins to work on him. Not exactly a country bumpkin, he’s still dazzled by Paris. The early scenes of him stumbling around the city — trying to buy the right suit, trying to hold his liquor — are delightful.
Les Innocents is bursting at the seams and degrading the sanitation of the first arrondissement. The smells of the dead seep into air, food, and water, requiring residents to breathe through perfumed handkerchiefs. The pits of the mass graves are so overcrowded that excess bones are stored in charnel houses along the cemetery walls … The difficult and symbolic task of emptying Les Innocents and moving its bones to the Catacombs of Montparnasse will change Baratte and the cemetery’s surrounding community forever. Those on sanity’s edge go mad. Many are lured in by the shadows, lost to tragic fates. Love surprises the engineer, like a lurking ghost. In the muddy delirium, among the bones, Baratte finds moments of hope in his grim work as the future’s shepherd.
Miller's parable is unambiguous. As Baratte's story unfolds, the impending revolution hangs over the narrative like the blade of the guillotine to come. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, or John the Baptist the Churn, is in Paris to prepare the people for the coming of the true messiah. It is his duty to rip away the filth of the past, to lay the foundations for a new, better world. As his foreman declares: ‘They will name squares after us . . . the men who purified Paris’ … Unlike many parables, however, Pure is neither laboured nor leaden. Miller writes like a poet, with a deceptive simplicity – his sentences and images are intense distillations, conjuring the fleeting details of existence with clarity.
...a wondrous imagining of a society astir with democratic yearnings. Pulling apart the cemetery becomes a metaphor for casting off the reeking past; Baratte is more observant of the cats in his path than the Catholic Church … One needn't be a scholar of democratic revolution or its disenchantment to fret over what awaits these men. Reading Pure calls to mind the Arab Spring and the voting this past week in Egypt. Miller's touch is also marvelously light; one might read for plot, or merely the enjoyment of an observant detail.
He drops us right into Paris in the last days of the ancien regime, a place of contagion and contamination where Miller's young hero, engineer Jean-Baptiste Barratte, has come to lose his illusions and find his fortune … It is disappointing, given the vitality of the novel's setting and set-up, that Miller fails to achieve corresponding dynamism in the development of plot and character. The destruction of Les Innocents consumes the novel, from first line to last, but the consequences of the project are never made to matter to the reader as much as they matter to the engineer; the dark results are not dark enough … Success in this effort requires a capacity for immersion and a degree of imagination, and whatever his shortcomings as a prose writer and a storyteller, Andrew Miller is endowed with both.
As the digging commences, unexpected complications arise: risk of cave-ins, infection, rats, bats, madness, fire, and the special danger posed by his landlords' vengeful daughter, Ziguette. Despite all obstacles, Jean-Baptiste forges on with his ghoulish task, but at what cost to reason? Although the book's dramas fail to coalesce, Miller recreates pre-Revolutionary Paris with astonishing verisimilitude, and through Jean-Baptiste, illuminates the years preceding le deluge.