Darkly beautiful and full of unsettling insights into how we view death and sacred spaces, Andrew Miller's Pure, which won the Costa last week, is a ghoulish delight, taking us into the dark days and murky evenings of pre-revolutionary Paris. The novel shimmers with tension, as though something earth-shattering is about to happen (and of course it is, though the revolution happens outside the remit of this novel). The central premise of the novel, the dismantling of the church of les Innocents and its cemetery, painstakingly uncovers for us the troubling question of the relationship between the past and the present: Is the past sacrosanct, a place that must be left undefiled by ideas of progress or does it taint everything we strive for with its own disturbing perfume? How we respond to this central question will affect how we react to the novel.
Miller's characterisation is typically superb: Jean-Baptise Baratte, the central character, a man who trades his worthy suit - inheritance from his father - for a beguiling but impractical pistachio-green suit, captures the heart of the reader from the very beginning. He is a man who is and remains an outsider, both in his home town and in Paris, and though the connections he makes with the other characters are compassionate and clear, they seem nevertheless to remain glancing and distant. We view him from the perspective of our contemporary world, and his integrity and ignorance of what is to come make us tender towards him.Other memorable characters include Pere Colbert the mad priest and Armand, the eccentric organist for a Church with no organ.
Ideas about corruption and clarity are at the heart of this novel. Situated on the cusp of the revolution, an historic moment fuelled by Voltaire's Enlightenment call to Reason, and Robespierre's call to Arms, the impelling drive of the novel is a moral drive. The dismembering of the cemetery has as much to do with the construction of modernity as it has to do with contagion.
This is a novel which extends our ideas of what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to live well. It has passages of lyrical beauty and it resonates on so many different levels. A very satisfying winner of Costa's Book of the Year Award.