Pure, Andrew Miller, Sceptre, RRP£17.99, 352 pages
In his sixth novel, Andrew Miller returns to the 18th-century setting of his first two, Ingenious Pain and Casanova. Hailed as a literary star from the outset, Miller is perhaps not as well-known now as he should be. Quietly powerful, consistently surprising, Pure is a fine addition to a substantial body of work.
Our unlucky hero Jean-Baptiste Baratte has been given, possibly by accident, the job of emptying the noxious, overfull Parisian cemetery Les Innocents, and of demolishing its church. He soon discovers that the locals like their filthy open space, among them Armand, the flame-haired organist who will soon be out of a job; the sexton and his daughter; and the family with whom Baratte lodges. The year is 1785 and the Bastille will fall in four years’ time.
Portents are everywhere: Baratte wonders “how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?” He shares a calf’s head with Lecoeur, an old friend: “He reaches it down from the meat safe on the wall, holds it like a darling. The poor, hacked-about head.” Threatening graffiti is scrawled up faster than the authorities can remove it, and street orators hector and rant. One of the doctors who comes to observe and experiment on the cadavers is none other than kind, humane Dr Guillotin.
Armand is slippery, an amoral bon vivant with links to “the party of the future”. The title hints at the more radical cleansing to come. During his year at Les Innocents, Baratte himself tests theories of utopia as he struggles with his recalcitrant workforce, at one point asking whether it is meaningful to talk of rights for those who lack the power to enforce them. Miller’s portraits of women and the poor are thoughtful and subtle.
Above all, pre-revolutionary Paris is evoked in pungent detail, from its fragrant bread and reeking piss-pots to the texture of clothing, the grimness of medical procedure and the myriad colours of excavated bone. By concentrating on the bit players and byways of history, Miller conjures up an eerily tangible vanished world.