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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Meticulously Researched, Yet The Writing Always Feels Entirely Natural

Pure - Andrew Miller

Set in Paris in 1785, Pure tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer tasked with the destruction of the cemetery of Les Innocents. This ancient graveyard has become so overloaded with human remains that the stench of putrefaction is poisoning the air of the capital. Indeed, within a short time of his arrival the stench has permeated Baratte's person so entirely that when he returns to visit his family in the Normandy countryside they cannot fail to notice it.

The cleansing of the cemetery is an undertaking of such magnitude that it will change Baratte as a human being, see him fall in love but also see him very nearly murdered. It will encompass rape, suicide, sudden death and the shadow of the forthcoming revolution reaching back in time and hovering over the workers whom Barratte directs.

The writing is never flowery or self-consciously poetic but it is wonderfully evocative. Here, for example, is how Miller describes night falling on wintry Paris, descending in scale from the heavens to the domestic details of the lodging house in which the protagonist dwells.

"Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky. The temperature is falling. In an hour or two the first frost flowers will bloom on the grass of parade grounds, parks, royal gardens, cemeteries. The street lamps are guttering. For their last half-hour they burn a smoky orange and illuminate nothing but themselves.

In the faubourgs of the rich, watchmen call the hour. In the rookeries of the poor, blunt figures try to hide in each other's warmth.

At the Monnards', in the box room under the slates, the servant Marie is kneeling in the dark. She has rolled up the rug and has her eye to the knothole above the lodger's room, the lodger's bed."

Miller's finest achievement is that though his writing is clearly meticulously researched it always feels entirely natural. We never doubt that this is eighteenth century Paris. At the same time, we always feel that his characters are people like us whose concerns and obsessions we understand and share.