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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars City of Death
On the surface, Pure seems like a straightforward historical fiction. Set in Paris in the year 1785, in the years just preceding the French Revolution, there is however evidently something more significant going on beneath the surface.

Getting beneath the surface is exactly what Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer from Normandy hoping to make his fame and...
Published on June 1, 2011 by Keris Nine

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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clearing the ground for a new age
In 1780 the huge ancient cemetery next to the Church of Les Innocents in Paris (today it is the area of Les Halles) was so full that the authorities said there were to be no more burials. The stench of decay was so pervasive that in 1786 the French government ordered the exhumation of the cemetery - the bones to be reburied in what is now known as the Catacombs near...
Published on February 7, 2012 by Ralph Blumenau


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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars City of Death, June 1, 2011
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
On the surface, Pure seems like a straightforward historical fiction. Set in Paris in the year 1785, in the years just preceding the French Revolution, there is however evidently something more significant going on beneath the surface.

Getting beneath the surface is exactly what Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer from Normandy hoping to make his fame and fortune in Paris, has been tasked to do for his first commission for the government, excavating the vast pits of the cemetery of les Innocents near les Halles market in the centre of the city, and taking down the church along with it. Bodies have been piled into the cemetery for centuries, and the king is concerned about the growing problem of filth and contamination that is emanating from one of the foulest areas in the city. It's a huge and deeply unpleasant task, but it's a necessary purification that needs to be carried out for the good of the city and the working population of the area. That's pretty much a subject of historical record, the bones excavated eventually ending up in the famous catacombs of Paris, and Andrew Miller's fictionalisation of the story follows the progress of the engineer and the relationships he develops with the workers he has employed, the family he boards with and the people he meets in the neighbourhood.

Although there is no shortage of incident in the story, it all arises fairly naturally out of the project to such an extent that it's easy to underestimate the skill with which the author depicts the simmering undercurrent of dissent and revolution that is simmering among the people and looking for an outlet. Even though in his idealistic days Baratte and his colleague would imagine their own utopia, the engineer doesn't realise just how important his purification of les Innocents is in bringing with it the idea of change, making him an unwilling and unwitting figurehead for the revolutionary slogans that are beginning to appear on the walls of the city. None of this is overstated, but it's clear by the end that the author has sown the seeds of the coming revolution of "purification" that will result in more piles of bones, and done so in greater detail and with greater subtlety than you could imagine possible from such a simple story.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clearing the ground for a new age, February 7, 2012
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Pure (Kindle Edition)
In 1780 the huge ancient cemetery next to the Church of Les Innocents in Paris (today it is the area of Les Halles) was so full that the authorities said there were to be no more burials. The stench of decay was so pervasive that in 1786 the French government ordered the exhumation of the cemetery - the bones to be reburied in what is now known as the Catacombs near Montparnasse, and was then known as the quarry at the Porte d'Enfer. The church, the tombs in the crypts and the charnel house were also to be demolished. The area was then to be turned into a market place.

These are the historical facts underlying this novel, and Andrew Miller is steeped in the history of that time just before the French Revolution, when the ideas of the Enlightenment were challenging traditions. The clearing of the old cemetery becomes a symbol for the mood of disposing of the past. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the young engineer who is put in charge of the work, is one of the "moderns"; so is his friend Lecoeur, who comes to do the work at the head of a team of thirty Flemings from the mines at Valenciennes where Baratte had himself once worked and with whom he had at that time spent many hours imagining an Enlightened utopia they called Valenciana. Symbolic, too, is the resistance (in one instance taking a very violent form) they encounter: many of the local have got used to the stench of decay and are opposed to the removal of familiar landmarks; others find this work of "purification" sacrilegious (though Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist of the barely visited church and another "modern", welcomes the change in the full knowledge that he will lose his position - anticipating those clergy who would take part in the early stages of the French Revolution). Anti-royalist and anti-clerical graffiti which are daubed on walls in the neighbourhood drive the context home.

If this seems a rather schematic plan for the book, it is full of people and incidents that flesh it out. Some of the incidents seem to me rather tangential, including Barette's curious love-affaire. The life of 18th century Paris and of 18th century Normandy (where Barette comes from), the state of the roads, the dependence on candle light, the clothes "of the future" which the "moderns" liked to wear, the medical theories of the time (propounded by none other than Dr Guillotin) - all this is brought out vividly. Miller is also throughly familiar with the geography of old Paris - it would have been nice to have had a map on which we could have followed the many streets to which he refers but which no longer exist.

The dialogue is often banal; and I don't feel that this a very organic book. Many actions, including two major acts of violence, do not seem to me to be to arise naturally out of the story - I wondered whether they were based on historical research, which might account for their inclusion. The book engaged my interest less and less towards the end, though there is a set-piece climax in the last few pages.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Destroying the Cemetery of the Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past.", June 1, 2012
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) In pristine sentences and uncompromising descriptions, used with great irony, Andrew Miller tells of a young engineer from rural France in 1785 whose job is to empty the overflowing cemetery at the Church of the Innocents in central Paris and rebury all the bones in the catacombs, for sanitary reasons. Set in 1785, just four years before the French Revolution, Miller's main character, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, supervises the emptying of over twenty burial pits located within a small, enclosed area. The work is "both delicate and gross," as the entire neighborhood around the cemetery is putrid after the cemetery's long use (and, more recently, the interment of fifty thousand people in less than a month in mass graves during a plague). The stench permeates everything - buildings, food, and ultimately people, and Baratte has only one year to make it "pure."

Despite the unusual and unsavory subject matter, Miller recreates the human side of the story - to make the reader empathize with Baratte, to see how important the job is to him, to show how he longs for acceptance - and even a job as unsavory this one quickly involves the reader in the story and its historical setting. Details about Paris in this pre-revolutionary time stick in the reader's memory: an elephant, somewhere in Versailles, that exists on Burgundy wine; a revolutionary group devoted to the future, that plasters warnings about the church and aristocracy on walls and buildings; the nearly hopeless lives of the miners Baratte recruits to work on this horrific job; and later, their differences in outlook from the masons he hires for additional on-site work.

Throughout the novel, Miller's descriptive details are unforgettable and often symbolic: a priest described as "a big wingless bat in the dusk"; Parisian theatre-goers "fighting their way through the doors like scummed water draining out of a sink"; a man with eyes "like two black nails hammered into a skull; and an crazed old man "nude as a worm," who begins to howl. The coming revolution is foreshadowed through the eyes of Baratte, whose own new suit of clothes, is not completely comfortable since it smacks of another class. The role of Heloise, a prostitute with a good heart and the intellect of a modern woman, shows how indifferent the court is to the resilience and resourcefulness of, not only women, but of the talented and thwarted men of the country. The characters' attitudes toward life, death, God, and the afterlife echo throughout the novel as bodies are disinterred and cleaned for reburial in the catacombs.

Ultimately, Miller succeeds in making this unlikely subject and its unusual characters both engaging and thought-provoking, requiring the reader to think beyond the limitations of most stories which are set so deep in the past. Baratte himself learns during his year, and he reflects the increasing awareness of a growing segment of the population that the life of the court of Versailles has reached the end of the line. When Baratte finishes his final report for the minister, his return to Versailles is filled with striking parallels and contrasts to the details of his arrival. Miller never overplays his conclusion, however, respecting the reader's ability to fill in some of the blanks that make this novel so memorable. An unusual and beautifully written novel which shines new light on some of the elements which can empower the oppressed and lead to revolution. Mary Whipple

Oxygen
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Miller's Tale, June 10, 2011
By 
Obelix (Ancient Gaul) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
I read and loved Miller's debut Ingenious Pain - surely one of the best British novels of the 1990s - and enjoyed his next two, Casanova and Oxygen. After that I moved on to other authors. Picking this one up, his latest, is like re-establishing a priceless friendship.

At first, it looks like a return: going back to 'doing history' (specifically Paris, 1785). Miller does his research as well as the next person, but it's the sensuous detail, the stuff that illuminates day-to-day living, that impresses and tells, as with all the best historical novels I know of - Norminton's Ship of Fools, Tremain's Restoration, Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. Miller's phrases are as polished as ever, too. I could go on quoting them, so I'm going to flip my copy open and stab out a sentence at random: after a heavy downpour, a preaching cross-fire has been reduced to 'a heap of smouldering black beams, like the doused wreck of a small cottage'.

I'm going to have to get hold of his other two novels, and soon.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pure delight, August 14, 2011
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This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
"Pure" is a is a simple, straightforward story about a young engineer Jean Baptiste assigned by the minister to destroy and remove a cemetery and the church that was on its grounds because it was believed that the cemetery, long closed, had fouled the air and the breath of the people nearby. It was feared that it might soon affect all of Paris and the King and his ministers too. The story spanned just about a year and Andrew Miller captivates with an enchanting account of the efforts of Jean Baptiste in his task, and in the process, the various people he met, including some interesting women, Heloise, his love, Jeanne, the daughter of the sexton of the desolate church on the cemetery, Ziguette, the mysterious daughter of Jean Baptiste's landlord. The most fascinating person was perhaps Armand, the organist of the church who took the fate of the church and the organ in it with stoicism but not without sentimentality. Then there are the miners and their foreman Lecoeur, the men who committed the menial work in the destruction of the cemetery, and how the process affected them.

The story flows easily and and engages the reader with a spell that grabs him and hold him to the book, like the spell that enveloped the cemetery and the eerie corpses they buried there. How do people fall under spells, the nature of which is ineffable and the only clue identifying the involvement of the mysterious if not supernatural, is gleaned only from the inapproppriate conduct of the victim? It is this feeling that will affect the reader through the entire book, and the last breath from him upon reaching the end of the book will be tinged with pure relief.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't Dig Deep Enough for Me...., July 5, 2012
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
I read this novel for two reasons, ....it won the Costa Book Award, ...and it purported to deal with the clearing of the odiously overcrowded Cimitiere des Innocentes in Paris, ...and the subsequent removal of the remains to the catacombs.
Strangely enough I was disappointed on so many levels.
The "style" seems lightweight and overly unsophisticated, ...almost simplistic in construction for a novel that won such a lofty award.
This led me to question just what were the criteria for the Costa Award?
The dialogue is indeed "banal", ...and the situations also more of a series of incidents rather than any purposeful build up of narrative.

It's supposedly set in the 18th century and yet I rarely felt any period atmosphere at all.
It COULD very well have been set in the 19th or early 20th, apart from a few items mentioned, and the central historical exhumation.
(I must add here that the C18th is a particular interest of mine and I read/research widely on this period.)

To say the story is developed simply is an understatement. I couldn't quite grasp if it was supposed to be an allegory, ....or a metaphysical journey of the conflict between conservative thinking and the progression of modernity. I'm not at all sure the author could decide either.
Others have mentioned the pre-empting of the forth-coming French Revolution, ...which is fairly heavy handedly hinted at. Some of the characters (such as Dr. Guillotin) are given famous historical names but if he is indeed the promoter of the primary method of head-removal in The Reign of Terror, we are never told.

The streetwalker, ..the main character's ultimate wife, is also given the very likeness of Marie Antoinette; ...but again, just whether she is the same prostitute hired to impersonate the Queen in the darkness of the gardens of Versailles in the later Affair of the Diamond Necklace is never revealed.

What exactly is the author trying to tell here? As the book progressed I too became less and less engaged, ....the ending is a neat completion of the full circle of course but hardly any revelation or summation of purpose. He was given an unpleasant and unwanted task, ...he completed it.

Try as I might I couldn't see much more than a VERY simple tale plainly told in the extreme.
Perhaps I was looking too deep and expecting too much, but I just couldn't grasp exactly what it was about this particular novel that garnered the award.
It's not the worst I have ever waded through, ...and on the surface it's not a "bad" read, ....but it's not anything "mind-grabbingly unputdownable" either.

Any expectations I had about learning much of anything about the exhumation or transportation of the bones were sadly disappointed. They dug 'em up, piled 'em up...and they were much later transported. End of story.
Surely that could have been "fleshed out" a little? (Pun oh-so-fully intended!) Seeing as that was supposedly the central mission of the protagonist.
The characters themselves remain elusive, ....many of them fairly two-dimensional drawings at best. The two acts of violence seem to appear in isolation against the rest of the story, ...both being fairly promptly resolved and the story just drifts aimlessly on.....no real motivation for either is ever revealed.

In short, I so wanted to enjoy this novel but was left with a feeling that it could have been so much more, rather than just a random selection of short incidents in the life of yet another provincial come-to town.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Purely wonderful, June 15, 2012
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This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
A truly engaging and beautifully crafted read. Full of rich characters and an engaging story, this is a smooth and lush reading experience. Settle in with a real pro and enjoy the experience. I, for one, and getting his previous novels right away.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Would have given 5 stars but for this..., July 29, 2012
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
This novel had my devotion in the first chapter. It's lush yet readable. The comparisons (similes, metaphors) are poetic and vivid.

The story's allusion to "what's coming" --flirting with the disaster that will be the French Revolution-- kept me intrigued. How would those events peek through the macabre task of clearing a reeking cemetery?

I would have given 5 stars but for the dual-climatic scenes: the engineer convincing a woman to live with him and his friend's lunatic attack. They seemed to be springboards for what happened next, not arising feasibly or logically. How is it he barely speak to this woman, stalks her mildly, and she's moving in with a few days consideration? No woman of her background would trust it! How is a man who conceived a Utopia and thrived on philosophy suddenly a vicious attacker?

Maybe these were writer's tricks, alluding to passion, sudden changes, and violence to come...but that's too far a stretch for this reader.

Fortunately, the author recovers from these significant--but all too horrific and convenient--turns by keeping the conclusion subtle and contained. Although I had hoped this novel would bloom into full Revolution from the characters' perspectives, it whetted my appetite to seek other historical, peripheral stories.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Novel that will take you on the incredible historical journey to the dusk of Louis XVI France, June 17, 2014
This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
'Pure' written by Andrew Miller is novel that takes place in the Paris 1785, few years before the outbreak of the French Revolution that will irrevocably change not only France, but also the whole world.

The reader meets the main character of the novel, engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, on the first pages while he wanders the endless corridors of the royal palace at Versailles waiting to be received by minister who will entrust him the important work. Baratte will get an extremely important task, which apparently originated from the king himself, to cleanse the area where there is an old cemetery Les Innocents, move the bones to another location, while the church which bears the same name should be destroyed or disassembled into parts that can be used elsewhere.

The reason for this action lies in the fact that the cemetery, which is located near the Paris market, due to the confined space in which the deceased were buried (often in mass graves) could not accommodate so many bodies, and the entire area began to stink so much that it was no longer suitable for living. Even the food in this part of Paris began to have a different flavor, and after human remains fell through the basement wall of a nearby house, church and cemetery were first closed and then it was decided more serious steps to be taken.

Jean-Baptiste Baratte task will be to oversee the works that will take a year, during which the workers will dig up the entire area of the cemetery, moving bones to another site in order to make the entire area pure, in literal and metaphorical sense. As support for needed works Baratte will engage his friend, Lecoeur with whom he worked together in the mines that will bring along a group of former miners.

However, activities related to the relocation of cemetery are just the beginning of exciting events in Baratte life, who took the task of the state though it was not too exciting job, but something that will mark a turning point in his career because of the references he would gain thanks to its successful execution. But after being humiliated, and then became a participant in unordinary event in his own room, a figure of shy engineer introduced at the beginning of the novel will gradually begin to change until the end of the novel that bears an unexpected outcome...

The novel 'Pure' is difficult to summarize in a few sentences, and yet not reveal parts of the plot that will spoil the pleasure of reading. This primarily refers to the characters that regardless receiving episodic role by Miller, will eventually fit into the puzzle that author finely conceived, in which each of them has become an important cog in the mechanism of this great story.

It's great how many actions and events the author managed to slip in a little more than 300 pages, and the motives of insanity, necrophilia, suicide and murder fit perfectly in this story, not allowing the reader a moment of relaxation.

But what is important to emphasize, the book perfectly describes the gunpowder barrel of French society whose fuse slowly burns down, and will explode four years later changing the political and social situation in Europe, introducing the idea of equality, liberty and fraternity. While reader meets the characters and becomes a participant in the tumultuous events novel is following, in the background a lot can be learned about the political climate and the dissatisfaction of the little man for who is increasingly difficult to cope with the problems in the country steeped in injustice, nepotism and bureaucracy.

Although the introduction of these motives can hardly be imagined in the novel intended for a wide audience, in this particular field Andrew Miller did a great job because his book is primarily a beautifully written novel that can be read and remembered for a long time. At times, the reader will have impression of reading a book written 100 years or more ago, because the ease with which the author puts us in the streets of Paris is hardly conceivable from author who was born in the 60s. His descriptions, use of metaphor and comparison make that the novel can be enjoyed even if you have no interest in French history.

Therefore, all the praises to the sixth work by Andrew Miller who with this novel once again confirmed that he is a brilliant author - therefore it was not surprising that for this novel back in 2011 he received the prestigious Costa Book of the Year Award. If you are looking for a book that will intrigue you at a slightly higher level than mere entertainment, a novel that will take you on the incredible historical journey to the dusk of Louis XVI France, 'Pure' is a novel that you cannot miss.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pure hyperventilation, January 1, 2013
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This review is from: Pure (Paperback)
Wonderful premise: Disinterrment as a metaphor for the French Revolution. Over written. Over wrought. Under delivered. Would never have finished it if I was not stuck on a plane and every other book within reach was in the luggage.
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Pure
Pure by Andrew Miller (Paperback - May 29, 2012)
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