Every so often you find a book that speaks to you, for no reason you can understand.
Pure is an odd one, the sort of book which does not provoke comparisons to other texts, but sits alone, in its own space, waiting for a time and place in which it truly belongs.
Paris, 1786. Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a young engineer, well-educated but inexperienced, who lands the unpleasant but lucrative task of emptying Les Innocents, the famously overflowing cemetery, the bones of which were moved to the Catacombs of Paris.
The strangest thing about this book is that it is a horrible story, but also one of the most poetic and beautiful works that I have read.
Decidedly literary in approach, Pure is a fictional take on the hypothetical details of this strange historic event, and as such it does suffer from a certain lack of human character. Oddly, however, I didn’t mind. The soft, evocative writing, and the subtle themes of this book weave a delicate spell. It is not the sort to reach out and pull you in, but to beckon mysteriously, and leave you thinking for days. It is not often that I consider myself ‘touched’ by a novel, but there is an intimacy to this book which lingers after the reading.
Pure is the first Miller novel I have read, but I am confident it will not be the last, since this author has the rare ability to write about anything, and make it striking.
‘A small dog makes its entrance. Its claws scitter 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…’
Featuring themes of insanity, love, the rise of the French Revolution, and of course, death, Pure covers a lot in less than 350 pages, which is perhaps its only true fault. Finishing this book, I did feel that I would have liked an extra twenty percent to wander through, particularly in relation to Baratte’s relationship with the prostitute, Héloïse, which is a little two-dimensional.
That being said, this novel is a book about events, rather than people, and there is something about its inherent sketchiness that adds to its fineness and charm.
An unusual book, and a testament to its various accolades, Pure is one of those rare books that lives up to its reputation, quietly shining from beginning to end.