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Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer of modest origin, arrives in the city in 1785, charged by the King’s minister with emptying the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents, a ancient site whose stench is poisoning the neighborhood’s air and water and leaving a vile taste in its inhabitants’ food. At first the ambitious Baratte sees his work as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a ...
Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer of modest origin, arrives in the city in 1785, charged by the King’s minister with emptying the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents, a ancient site whose stench is poisoning the neighborhood’s air and water and leaving a vile taste in its inhabitants’ food. At first the ambitious Baratte sees his work as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to both his own demise and that of the monarchy. Baratte expects the task to be unpleasant but cannot foresee the dramas and calamities it will trigger, or the incident that will transform his life. As unrest against the court of Louis XVI mounts, the engineer realizes that the future he had planned may no longer be the one he wants. His assignment becomes a year of relentless work, exhuming of mummified corpses and listening to the chants of priests, a year of assault and sudden death. A year of friendship, too, and of desire and love. A year unlike any other he has lived.
Winner of the 2011 Costa Novel Award and 2011 Costa Book of the Year
A young man, young but not very young, sits in an anteroom somewhere, some wing or other, in the Palace of Versailles. He is waiting. He has been waiting a long time.
There is no fire in the room, though it is the third week in October and cold as Candlemas. His legs and back are stiffening from it—the cold and three days of travelling through it, first with Cousin André from Bellême to Nogent, then the coach, overfull with raw-faced people in winter coats, baskets on their laps, parcels under their feet, some travelling with dogs, one old man with a cockerel under his coat. Thirty hours to Paris and the rue aux Ours, where they climbed down onto cobbles and horseshit, and shifted about outside the haulier's office as if unsure of their legs. Then this morning, coming from the lodgings he had taken on the rue–the rue what?–an early start on a hired nag to reach Versailles and this, a day that may be the most important of his life, or may be nothing.
He is not alone in the room. A man of about forty is sitting opposite him in a narrow armchair, his surtout buttoned to his chin, his eyes shut, his hands crossed in his lap, a large and rather antique-looking ring on one finger. Now and then he sighs, but is otherwise perfectly silent.
Behind this sleeper, and to either side of him, there are mirrors rising from the parquet to the cobwebbed mouldings of the ceiling. The palace is full of mirrors. Living here, it must be impossible riot to meet yourself a hundred times a day, every corridor a source of vanity and doubt. The mirrors ahead of him, their surfaces hazed with dust (some idle finger has sketched a man's bulbous cock and next to it a flower that may be a rose), give out a greenish light as if the whole building were sunk, drowned. And there, part of the wreck, his own brown-garbed form, his face in the mottled glass insufficiently carried to be descriptive or particular. A pale oval on a folded body, a body in a brown suit, the suit a gift from his father, its cloth cut by Gontaut, who people like to say is the best tailor in Bellême but who, in truth, is the only tailor, Bellême being the sort of place where a good suit is passed down among a man's valuables along with the brass bed-warmer, the plough and harrow, the riding tack. It's a little tight across his shoulders, a little full in the skirts, a little heavy at the cuffs, but all of it honestly done and after its fashion perfectly correct.
He presses his thighs, presses the bones of his knees, then reaches down to rub something off the ankle of his left stocking. He has been careful to keep them as clean as possible, but leaving in the dark, moving through streets he did not know, no lamps burning at such an hour, who can say what he might have stepped in? He scrapes at it with the edge of his thumb. Mud? Hopefully. He does not sniff his thumb to enquire.
A small dog makes its entrance. Its claws skitter on the floor. It looks at him, briefly, through large occluded eyes, then goes to the vase, the tall, gilded amphora displayed or abandoned in one of the room's mirrored angles. It sniffs, cocks its leg. A voice—elderly, female—coos to it from the corridor. A shadow passes the open door; the sound of silk hems brushing over the floor is like the onset of rain. The dog bustles after her, its water snaking from the vase towards the crossed heels of the sleeping man. The younger man watches it, the way it navigates across the uneven surface of the parquet, the way even a dog's piss is subject to unalterable physical laws ...
He is still watching it (on this day that may be the most important of his life, or nothing at all) when the door of the minister's office opens with a snap like the breaking of those seals they put on the doors of infected houses. A figure, a servant or secretary, angular, yellow-eyed, signals to him with a slight raising of his chin. He gets to his feet. The older man has opened his eyes. They have not spoken, do not know each other's names, have merely shared three cold hours of an October morning. The older man smiles. It is the most resigned, most elegant expression in the world; a smile that appears like the flower of vast, profitless learning. The younger man nods to him, then slips, quickly, through the half-open door of the office for fear it might shut on him again, suddenly and for ever.
Excerpted from PURE by Andrew Miller. Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Miller. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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Posted August 17, 2012
There is nothing boring about Pure, a gripping, sophisticated historical
novel about pre-Revolutionary Paris. The ongoing tension between the
bones being removed and the heads that we know are about to roll, is
gripping. What does action mean--to act? For how long must we think and
to what extent can we rationalize our actions? These are the types of
questions the book presents. Plus, it's a page turner, indeed.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2013
For those that enjoy historical fiction here's a pick for you! I don't read much historical fiction but what got me interested in this particular one is it's set right outside the Palace of Versailles during the time of Louis XVI. I am a fan of the movie Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst
and thought that it would be interesting to see what it was like for the people living outside the palace during the same time.
While our main character's job is most undesirable, and most likely to fail. He only does some of the dirty work himself. Soon after arriving to clean out the remains of an overflowing cemetery he gets a crew of 30 men to dig. They find many things during their exhumations.
Even though Jean-Baptiste is hired for this rather untasteful task, it does consume a year of his life. There is much more to this story than digging up the bodies. The church that lies above, in which the bodies are slowly encroaching and the nearby shopping center. The conflicts as well as intermixing concerns of both, and more!
He does find comfort in the arms of Héloise and a friend in Armand. Of course at the heart of the story is that there is revolution brewing. People are upset and want enlightenment. And during this day and age, their lives will literally go up in flames.
A melancholy story full of dead bodies, but with love and friendship during one of the hardest years in their lives.
Posted November 7, 2012
I thought the book terrific, and the problems of the incipient French Revolution are still the problems of today. Life in a grand metropolis is made truly palpable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2012
This book was an "editor's choice" in the New York Times and based on the overview seemed like an interesting read. Unfortunately, it is a total bore, with unimaginative characters and a story line that leads you on, believing that MAYBE something interesting will start to happen (it never does). Save your time and money on this one.
0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2013
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Posted August 1, 2013
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