Paris. 1785. The final years before the revolution. A young engineer is given the job of clearing the old cemetery of Les Innocents of its current inhabitants, and then tear down the old church.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte: The engineer charged with cleansing the over-flowing cemetery of Les Innocents, sited in the Les Halles quartier of Paris.. He seems very innocent at the start, and unsure of himself, but is educated in life by his friend Armand.
Armand: The organist of the church, who participates readily in the destruction of his livelihood.
Lecouer: Baratte’s long-time friend, who is enlisted in the project.
Heloise: A mysterious prostitute, who has had a harsh upbringing and life, yet retains a warmth and humanity which beguiles Baratte.
Dr Guillotin: He of the famous execution tool, he befriends the young Baratte, and assists him where possible.
The Monnards: Baratte’s landlords, who are opposed to the project, and make home life awkward.
Ziguette: The slightly unbalanced, unmarried daughter of the landlords, she is vehemently and violently opposed to the project.
Jeanne: The sexton’s grand-daughter, who helps Baratte map out the cemetery, a gentle sensitive fourteen-year old.
Jean-Baptiste is a young man who is rising fast. However, he is given this job, as he is mistaken for another, but takes it as a chance to prove his worth. The number of people buried in Les Innocents is unknown, but it is overcrowded and creating horrendous quality of life issues for the surrounding poor neighbourhood.
The locale is poor, and is described as being almost permanently overcast. We can almost taste the gritty air, and breathe the foul smells. The streets are like warrens, and host all shades and walks of life. The flotsam of Paris have washed up in Les Halles, and the mood is grim and bleak.
Having made his initial assessments, Baratte calls on his old friend Lecouer to assist him, and he duly arrives with a bunch of Belgian miners. In a foreshadow of what is to come, the men will only really follow the orders of an unofficial leader in their midst, the first stirrings against authority. Unlike the nobility, Baratte manages to find a work-around, and the men set to the grisly task of “purifying Paris”
As the bodies come to light, the stench increases. Fires are kept burning day and night, and bones pile up while waiting on the carriages that will see them taken to the Catacombs on the outskirts of Paris, to be re-buried. This begins to take its toll on everyone involved, both directly and indirectly, and we witness scenes of madness, violence, suicide and depravities.
Baratte falls for Heloise, the mysterious prostitute who he sees walking the streets. She is different to the other street-walkers, and eventually he moves in with her.
As the grisly task nears its end, there is cause for hope. Flowers blossom in the ravaged cemetery, sunlight breaks through the oppressive clouds, and life goes on, as it must.
What I Liked:
- The writing is superb, evocative, and elegant “The stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky”
- There is a lot of action in the book, and a growing sense of dread.
- The author powerfully blends historical fact and fiction to create a compelling story.
What I Didn’t Like:
- Some threads didn’t make sense, and at the end I was left wondering what was the point? What is the real purpose of Armand, for example?
- While overall the writing is superb, I found the characters were flat.
- In spite of all of what was going on action-wise, the pace of the book was slow, and it was relatively hard to keep up the reading momentum.
The prose is excellent, and really evokes late 18th century Paris. It is a good story about an event I had no knowledge of, at a moment in time before the world changed, forever. However, I found it hard to finish, and was left a little dissatisfied when I did. For me, Pure did not deliver on its potential.