I borrowed Pure from my friend Katrina because I had heard really good things about it. It had won the Costa back in 2011 and I remember friends reading it right after the award was announced. I was curious about it.
Nevermind that when people asked what I was reading and I responded, "Oh, a book about renovating a cemetery," I got some great looks.
Pure tells the story of a young noble(ish) man, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. It's 1785 and he has just finished a program to become an engineer. He gets called to Versailles and is nervous to see what kind of assignment the higher ups have given to him. What he finds out is that they want him to clear a cemetery.
The cemetery of les Innocents has become so overrun that the filth is settling in to the groundwater. You can taste putrid air in the breath of the locals. The city wants to get rid of it and raze the ground. Baratte is the man they want to do it.
The story explores the way Baratte deals with this new task (that he really doesn't want) and how he grows as a man and as an engineer during the ordeal. It also explores the lives of a few of the locals of the neighborhood: Ziguette Monard, daughter of the family Baratte is staying with and a girl who has loved looking at the cemetery for years, Armand, the musician who still plays the organ in the abandoned church, Heloise, the woman just as out of place as Baratte, and Jeanne, the young granddaughter of the sexton who has grown up around the rubble. All of these lives will intertwine as a great task is undertaken.
What really impressed me about Pure is how readable it is. Although a historical fiction on a somewhat obscure (or at least, rarely written about) time period, it reads as if it were happening in front of the reader's eyes. Baratte is completely relatable and all of the characters feel very real. Although I read this book over two weeks before writing this review, I still remember all of them very distinctly and have feelings that I directly relate to each of them. Miller creates real personalities with his characters and it shows a real depth of understanding.
The subject matter, as well, is never boring. Ultimately, this is a book about an engineering project, something I would normally not touch with a ten foot pole. I became interested, however, in how exactly they were going to raze a cemetery, something mostly underground. I became curious about things I normally wouldn't care about and actually felt like I was understanding what I was reading, not skimming through on my way to a better passage. There aren't long, unwieldy paragraphs with technical terms or whole pages of boring engineering talk. It is easy to follow and not overly descriptive, something many historical novels fall into.
I'm very impressed with Pure. I really enjoyed it and read it very quickly but it has stuck with me. I would recommend this to anyone that would like to read something a bit heavier but not too "literary," if that's the right term. It's a good book that isn't overly pretentious and I very much enjoyed it.