“Pure” is one of the best written and most interesting books I have read this year. Once again, Miller seems to have a thorough grasp of the subject he is writing about, in this case, an invented story of a real incident that is so realistic the reader loses him/herself in the era leading up to the French Revolution. The setting is Paris in 1785. An idealistic young man, Jean Baptiste Barrate, arrives from his home in northwestern France. He is an ambitious engineer, a builder of bridges with a background in mining, and he is determined to make a name for himself. He arrives full of the energy of youth and modern ideas of philosophy, a follower of Voltaire who has no connection with traditional religion. Baratte has been given a government commission, and he is as innocent of the difficulty of the task he is assigned as the name of the church and its cemetery, Les Innocents, that he is to raze to the ground as well as remove all the bones to another area of the city. Many ended up in Pere-Lachaise and Montmartre.
Les Innocents is an ancient church with a huge sprawling graveyard which has grown and taken over the area we know as Les Halles. There were thousands and thousands of people buried on top of one another, burrowing deep into the ground. It is said that from the bubonic plague alone 50,000 have been interred. Arriving at his workplace, Jean is appalled and horrified at the overpowering stench of death which has permeated the city for miles around. The church itself is abandoned except for an ancient cleric and an organist, Armand, who becomes a close friend of Baratte. Living close by is a sexton and his granddaughter who will play a part in the unfolding events.
Once he gets over the shock of the enormity of his assignment, Baratte sets to work to the best of his abilities. He enlists the aid of an old colleague and friend, Lecoeur, who helps him hire a ragtag group of miners who may be the only ones capable of completing such a horrific task. At the same time, Jean finds accommodation with a couple named Monnard, who have a daughter who is possibly deranged. As the work moves forward, the lives of all these people are deeply affected. Jean, himself, loses his illusions and enthusiasm. His clothes which bordered on the foppish change to sober black. He spends too many sleepless nights. His wanderings through the city introduces the reader to ordinary people trying to survive under the weight of a government and king who are divorced from everyday life. Versailles where Jean goes to report his progress seems almost as empty and cavernous as the church he is destroying.
Despite all the darkness, there is love and caring among the people helping Jean. In the end when his task is complete and revolution is imminent, Baratte is a very different man than the naive youth who arrived in Paris so full of promise.
Miller has a way of weaving history into the lives of ordinary people and at the same time turning the story into an allegory of the destruction of France as revolution looms. I enjoyed this book for its history, story and excellent writing. I highly recommend it to all readers. It is a good choice for a reading group with much to discuss.