When New York Times book reviewer Kathryn Harrison writes of Pure by Andrew Miller, she describes it as “a novel set during the Age of Enlightenment that pays homage not to the dawn of reason but to its witching hour, teeming with all that reason mocks – hobgoblins, specters and whatever else might be lurking in the dark.” And I repeat it here because it’s a darkly beautiful description, but also because she’s right.
French engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte arrives in Paris in 1785 with the unthinkable charge to excavate an ancient cemetery whose walls have become too small, let’s say, for its bodies. He must succeed in the unholy task of removing the dead before the stench further infects the neighborhood, and he must do so before the civil unrest brewing in the city boils over.
This is the story of one man’s quest to do his job and to find the righteous good beneath the crust of hard, ignoble work. Baratte changes as the cemetery does, and in the end it’s hard to tell what has shaped him more: all the darkness of mad priests, midnight assaults, corrupt monarchy and sudden death, or something deeper, more secretive. Something, perhaps, pure.
FTC Disclosure: This review was based on a copy of the book that I received from the publisher.