Pure is the kind of book that reminds me why I love Europa books. First of all, it was probably the most anticipated Europa of the year so far for me; I'd been hearing about it from their publicity department for months and couldn't wait to get a hold of it. It's an award winner (Costa, 2011, for Best Novel and Best Book), it's about France, and it has that cool cover.
And, as it turns out, it's pretty awesome. Set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, It's the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer from Normandy who comes to the big city to oversee a large and challenging project- dismembering a cemetery, les Innocents- in the heart of the city. He gets the assignment from a powerful minister at Versailles and knows this project will make or break his career. In Paris he finds lodging with the Monnards, a local bourgeois family, befriends the church's organist Armand, and sets about his tasks.
First thing's first though, and he needs some new threads- his father's musty old suit just won't do- so he and Armand head to a tailor who fits him out with a pistachio-green silk number whose color adorns the book's cover. Miller uses Barratte's clothes as a motif throughout the book to show Baratte's mood and feelings about what he's doing. The pistachio suit represents his optimism and his hick enthusiasm at taking on Paris; when he visits his family back in the sticks though, he changes:
On Christmas Eve, they go to mass at Bellême. They put on their best things, compliment each other, though Jean-Baptiste is not wearing his pistachio suit, having, at the last moment in Paris, not quite the nerve to face his family in Monsieur Charvet's [the tailor] vision of the future. He had considered, briefly, going back to the place des Victoires and seeing if his old suit was still there (his mother has already asked after it), but let himself be unnerved by the anticipation of Charvet's scorn, the unvoiced judgement that the young engineer was one of those timorous creatures who leap forward one day only to scurry back the next. Instead, he has on a suit borrowed from Monsieur Monnard, something pigeon-colored and respectable., the sort of costume that might be worn to the annual Guild Cutlers dinner. It fits him well; better perhaps than he would have wished it to.He never really goes back to the pistachio after all. But he continues his work, his year in Paris, as one trouble after another befalls himself and the project. He recruits miners from Bellême to carry out the work but exhuming the cemetery is the least of his challenges. There is resistance to the project, and pressure from above, and problems big and small get in his way. There are deaths, and scandal, and tragedy, and love.
Miller writes in a crisp, straightforward style that is laced with a wry humor and gentle sadness. Baratte changes slowly but believably; something is passing away, some part of himself as well as some part of Paris. There are larger rumblings of discontent as well; this is the time just before the fall of the French monarchy after all. But Miller is unconcerned with the upper echelons of French society and takes as his subject the very lowest, physically and politically- the dead and those tasked with their removal. He finds the beauty and the humanity in those living and dying on the margins of Parisian society- the workers, the prostitutes and the bones and bodies of the dead.
I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully crafted and fascinating book. It should be in the summer tote of every reader of literary fiction, especially but not exclusively those with a particular interest in France. Miller's storytelling will keep those pages moving and his characters will keep your emotions engaged. It's a fresh and original story told with verve and compassion.
It's my 8th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.