Exhuming a Messiah: Pure by Andrew Miller

on Saturday, June 25, 2011
When Andrew Miller first appeared on the scene with his dazzling debut Ingenious Pain, I thought I'd found the new messiah. Immediately appointing myself high priest and chief proselytiser, I began shouting his name from every rooftop, stockpiling copies of the book to give out to my friends on their birthdays and clearing large spaces on my shelves to house what was destined to be his glorious ouevre. But then I made a a terrible mistake. I put down money - serious money - on him to win the Booker, which pretty much set the wheels of disappointment in motion for the next decade. There was no prize. There wasn't even a nomination. Sure, it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Premio Grinzane Cavour and, a few years later, the Dublin IMPAC but it was overlooked for the big one in favour of Arundhati Roy! And that was only the beginning.

Second-album slump hit Miller hard. His follow-up, Casanova In Love, was so damn awful that even had the Booker Consolation Committee wanted to give him a nod they just couldn't. I blamed myself and forgave him, then anxiously awaited number three. Oxygen, which did get shortlisted, was an alright novel, but lacked any of the imaginative flair of the debut. It was followed by an impostor (the other Andrew Miller wrote a rather quirky family memoir, The Earl of Petticoat Lane) and another slice of mediocrity - The Optimists. Then there was, One Morning Like A Bird. Yawn. Yet, for some strange reason (well, because Ingenious Pain remains one of my favourite novels of all time), Miller never lost his spot on my D.E.A.R. authors list. No matter what he puts out, I will drop everything and read it.

So now, almost fifteen years and four crap books from the initial revelation comes Pure, Miller's peculiar tale of digging up and relocating thousands of bodies from Paris's Les Innocents cemetery to make way for urban expansion. Obviously, the delicious irony is not lost on me; Miller's career might well be resurrected by a book about exhuming the dead. All the signs were good. Part of what made Ingenious Pain so great was the incredibly atmospheric evocation of pre-Revolution Russia and, in Pure, it seems Miller is intent on turning that same attention to pre-Revolutionary France. The guy has a serious knack for using history to great effect, both in how he portrays it and what contemporary parallels he can draw from it. Clearly the publishers thought they were onto a good thing. In this age of battling the e-book, Pure is a welcome relief, a stunning, embossed cloth hardcover that is as beautiful to touch as it is to gaze upon. But it's what lies between the covers that counts, and on that front I'm thrilled to say that Miller is back.

It is 1785 and Jean Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy, is charged with the destruction of the cemetery and church at Les Halles. Holed up at a nearby guest house, he assembles a team of Belgian miners to dig up and cart away the bodies that are overflowing from the mass graves and stinking out the city. It is a stomach-churning task, taken on with scientific objectivity and pragmatic gusto. Hints of disease, infection, superstition and resentment creep in from all sides, made all the more ominous thanks to Miller's subtle, perfectly-pitched prose. In less deft hands, this novel would sink into a moribund abyss. Yet Miller maintains a lightness throughout, peppering the story with a varied and often hilariously grotesque cast of characters. There's Barratte's sidekick Lacouer, driven mad by the enormity of the undertaking; Colbert and Armand, the church's organist and priest, ministers both to an evaporated congregation; the Monnard family, with whom the engineer lives and whose daughter he briefly loves before she tries to kill him. And of course there's a few dastardly doctors and government types, ones you know will one day end up on the guillotine (if only because one of them is actually named Guillotin). Even Damiens, the executioner made famous in Foucault's Discipline and Punish, gets a look in.

Beyond the exhumation itself and the personal growth of Baratte, nothing much happens in Pure. It doesn't build to a narrative crescendo, though I suspect the final destruction of the church was meant to have a more cataclysmic feel about it. Unlike James Dyer in Ingenious Pain, Baratte is not the sort of character to whom one might feel any great attachment. And yet there is something about him and the book as a whole that completely captivated me. I read it in one sitting, late into the night. I still can't put my finger on what was lacking - I've never before had such a satisfying yet hollow reading experience - but niggling doubts aside, Pure is one of the best books I've read this year. All is forgiven, Mr. Miller. Welcome back old friend!


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