I think the trick to writing good historical fiction is probably to do extensive and wide ranging research, to really immerse yourself in your period, and then to forget about it all and tell a story. The last novel I reviewed here demonstrated a rich understanding of period but was at root a story of human psychology. This novel also feels like it was written by an author who deeply understands their historic period but wanted to tell a story of relationships and ideas.
‘Pure’ is set in Paris in 1785. A young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is given the task of clearing an ancient cemetery in the heart of the city. A cemetery so overflowing and putrid that it represents a serious hazard to the city’s residents and has a smell all of its own. He begins the task optimistically — believing this to be a fitting and noble project for a modern man of reason. But as the corpses are uncovered and the bones piled high the destruction of the cemetery has a profound effect on Baratte and those around him. One that challenges his ideas and changes him.
This is a wonderful novel. I got a real sense of place and time and all of the characters felt real. I was able to imagine many of the scenes quite vividly. It is also a novel of symbolism; life and death, ancient and modern, faith and reason. While the politics of the book are understated — a story of an attempt at a rational purification of an ancient place of decay — and the forces that such an attempt might unleash — and set in Paris just a few years before the Revolution — is dealing with some big ideas.
I did identify with the theme of idealism coming up against and having to compromise with, a very murky, reality. There was interesting stuff in the story about what happens to the disillusioned idealist. Do they choose a path of bitterness leading to violence — or do they choose to seek for meaning in human relationships. Yes, the novel is also a love story.
I particularly enjoyed the final scene of the book. It is funny and life affirming — but also horribly gruesome. I think it is probably one of the most memorable endings to a book I have read.