I picked up "Pure" casually, wanting to take its measure in a "Blink" Malcolm Gladwell way, thinking it might suit our summer reading guide, set for Sunday, June 3.
I stayed to relish all 331 pages, caught up in its unforced, stylish sentences, absorbed into its vivid story. Such is the wonder of good fiction, when a topic and a tale of which we are ignorant can -- through simple ink symbols on paper -- acquire an urgency that casts the rest of our daily rounds in shadow.
Here, writer Andrew Miller sets his readers down in France four years before the 1789 revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, the raw, Norman son of a glove maker, is waiting in a cold anteroom at Versailles, hoping for a commission from the king. The young petitioner has built a small bridge, has two years of training as an engineer.
Baratte wins a harrowing assignment: Empty Les Innocents, the oldest Christian burial ground in Paris, of its bones. The spot is full, has been since the 14th century. Still, the bodies kept coming: 50,000 in one month from the plague alone. Now the neighborhood is so befouled that meat rots in mere minutes, wine blisters to vinegar. In 1780, the weight of corpses crashes a cemetery wall into an adjoining residence, filling it with pestilent, putrid mud.
Les Innocents "could no longer hold on to its dead. One might bury one's father there and not in a month's time know where he was. The king himself was disturbed." Baratte must plan and supervise the disinterment of uncounted bones, demolish the charnel houses, destroy the church itself.
He hardly imagines he can manage it; he knows he cannot refuse. "Pure" is set in the same milieu as Patrick Suskind's 1986 blockbuster "Perfume," but it's not as garishly told. Miller writes with a preciseness an engineer could savor. He leaves us to imagine the stench by quietly noting characters' individual reactions to it; Baratte realizes, while visiting his sister in Normandy, that she has assumed he is unwell because of the smell traveling with him.
"Pure" is also a wondrous imagining of a society astir with democratic yearnings. Pulling apart the cemetery becomes a metaphor for casting off the reeking past; Baratte is more observant of the cats in his path than the Catholic Church.
"We are the men," says one Baratte compatriot, "who will purify Paris. . . . It will be a type of example."
"We will dispose of the past," says the church organist who joins in, using "a voice pitched between earnestness and comedy. 'History has been choking us long enough.' "
One needn't be a scholar of democratic revolution or its disenchantment to fret over what awaits these men. Reading "Pure" calls to mind the Arab Spring and the voting this past week in Egypt.
Miller's touch is also marvelously light; one might read for plot, or merely the enjoyment of an observant detail: "Odd thing how all shut doors are not alike, how in their way they are expressive as human backs."
The writer tucks in a love interest that does justice to the female; the bloodshed, when it arrives, is more peculiar and unhinged than the work of any ghost.
Earlier this year, "Pure" won England's Costa Book Award (the former Whitbread Prize). The jury was bitterly divided, according to press reports, but the outcome feels just. More fiction aficionados will discover the fiction of Miller, who has five distinguished earlier novels. Rich prospects for summer reading, indeed.
Karen R. Long is book editor of The Plain Dealer.