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Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Historical novel: The Men Who Purified Paris

Pure by Andrew Miller set in Paris, 1785

When we visit a city today, there is such a sense of the contemporary, but also a real sense of the history - and that our footsteps echo in the footsteps of our predecessors. What might their story have been? how might they have experienced the very same city but decades and centuries ago? What were the sights and sounds they might have encountered?

This is where well written historical fiction can so often bring to life times past - so many authors make the effort and patiently research their story, setting it in its historical context so that the sites, sounds and smells can rise from the pages.

Pure won the Costa 2011 Book of the Year Award and is a neat novel set in the heart of Paris at the turn of 1785. The book explores the lives of the people who are brought together both actively and passively in the digging up of the Cemetery at Les Innocents in Les Halles district of the city.   This is a cemetery that has accumulated bodies over many years and in parts is thought to be up to 30 M deep with corpses and skeletons. It is a place that exudes a dank lubriciousness (I love that word) over the local populace, its hold pervades right to the heart of the neighbourhood. Just to rid himself of the iron grip of the cemetery, Armand, for example, has to wash with lemons and a soap of sage leaves and ashes, and smoke the smell of the place from every pore with rosemary.  The people in the surrounding area can't live with it but they can't live without it - take Ziguette who becomes histrionic at the thought of the loss of this black place.

The works are overseen by the engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, who is originally from Normandy and he explores the city through the eyes of an outsider. Much of the disquiet that is pre-revolutionary Paris is seen through his eyes - the strategically placed graffiti that blooms overnight, the frantic connections for intimacy that the miners fight for, and the church...what does that now stand for both physically and religiously?

There are beautifully evocative descriptions of Paris - whether tracing a path along the Rue de la Lingerie or Rue de la Fromagerie in the company of Jean-Baptiste - or visiting the theatre, where not only performance was on offer, but an array of sustenance from chicken pieces to almonds and wine, all consumed noisily under the flickering light of 500 candles (imagine the scene!).

Pure is a good novel that will transport you back in time and if you enjoy this historical novel then we can suggest The Emperor of Paris by C S Richardson, set a century later, but equally evocative of historical Paris. If you click on the cover you will be taken to our blogpost.

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