January 20, 2012 9:13 pm

Human remains

An engineer comes to terms with the direction of his desires as he transports the contents of a Parisian cemetery

Pure, by Andrew Miller, Sceptre, RRP£8.99, 352 pages

 

Andrew Miller’s superb sixth novel returns to the 18th-century setting of his first two; a period choked with filth and scientific progress that the author navigates with quiet enthusiasm.

It is 1785 and engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is commissioned to transport the entire human remains of the cemetery of Les Innocents in Paris to a disused quarry outside the city. Charnel pits 20 metres deep require Baratte’s mining expertise, while the ancient graveyard’s atmosphere seems to encourage acts of insanity, rape and murder that test his mettle. As with most of Miller’s protagonists, Baratte comes to deal with his own position in society, his moral integrity and the direction of his desires.

Pure is at once earthy and elegant, subtly engaged with the social preoccupations of the day that gather at the novel’s periphery as seditious graffiti appearing throughout the pre-revolutionary capital. Richly textured characters and nuanced detail make Pure an absorbing and highly satisfying read.

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