Andrew Miller’s PURE won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year and appeared in paperback in 2012. It is set in Paris in 1785 and, although it is a work of fiction, really evokes pre-revolutionary France.
A young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, has only one bridge to his name, but he is employed to excavate and remove all the bodies from Les Innocents cemetery in the heart of Paris, and to demolish the church. The cemetery had been over-filled and pollutes the surrounding area, even tainting the breath of those who live around its precincts and rendering the food unpalatable.
Baratte’s task finds him friends, including the neighborhood whore, Héloise, and the charismatic organist, Armand, who plays to an empty church. However, a range of emotions, including murderous ones, is aroused by the task he has undertaken.
This is fiction, not history, but it is based on real events which caught Miller’s attention and prompted him to recreate the story. PURE reads like history when characters such as Dr Guillotin enter the narrative. We are aware, all through the story, of the tensions and events that were to come.