- I went to see The Woman in Black. You probably... shouldn't. Just read the book.
- I wrote about how romance in fiction is exactly like stalking.
- I also read something that wasn't non fiction! Pure by Andrew Miller just won the Costa book of the year, and since it has been on my radar since mid-2011, when my ex-colleague-with-impeccable taste read the proof and told me it was good, I decided that now I really had to see what all the fuss was about. So I did.
And now I'm going to review it.
I've got to say, I've missed fiction. It's so loose, so free, so unconstrained by things like facts and reality. When you write fiction you can totally fill your book with mysterious violet-eyed miners and extraordinarily tall, good-hearted prostitutes who ply their trade in exchange for fancy copies of The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Or maybe that's just this particular novel. Yes, Pure contains both of the above characters, plus a mentally unhinged priest and an inexplicable elephant, and everyone (apart from the elephant) spends their time running around in a lavishly disgusting cemetary that is the literal representation of all that is rotten in the state of France in 1785. As far as plot goes, engineer Jean-Baptiste is called in to clean up Paris's Les Innocents graveyard, which is beginning to, er, overflow its contents into neighbouring houses and streets, spreading decay and disgustingness into everyday life - much, in fact, like a certain Ancien Regime I could mention. Yes, Jean-Baptiste (which is, meaningfully, French for John the Baptist) must clear away the old, stop the rot and sweep in a new age of purity. Do you see where this is going yet?
Just from the back cover, you can tell that Pure is going to be a novel with serious underlying concepts. The blurb (actually a quote from the book's final chapter) promises
A year of bones, of grave-dirt. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death.Setting aside the problems I have with the concept of a year of rape, do you see the THEMES that are emerging here? There's DECAY, there's DEATH and more DECAY and yet (as you discover when you read the book) in the midst of the DEATH and DECAY there's the possibility of finding PURITY. But only with an effort. A few chapters of Pure and I was seeing decay everywhere. I started to feel the kind of mental paranoia that I usually get from reading too much Freud, except instead of penises everything was rotting.
Pure's definitely not one for delicate stomachs. Actually, one of my favourite things about it is its complete commitment to the atmosphere it wants to produce. Things drip, things leak, there are yellow puddles, rotting teeth and cracking plaster, and everyone's clothing is covered in suspicious stains. It's firmly in the 'goitres, missing fingers and syphilitic children' sub-genre of historical fiction that's become so popular recently (the best example of which is the absolutely brilliant The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. You should all read it if you haven't already). Miller's got a clear, vivid writing style that's a (slightly gross) pleasure to read, and it lends itself well to his choice of subject.
But while the atmosphere's good, sometimes the content is a little more iffy. I ended up being unexpectedly bothered by Pure's presentation of women. Now, I'm not someone who demands that all female characters should be strong and consistently awesome. I've met just as many idiotic women as I have men. But what I do require is that female characters should behave with intent and agency and some sort of acknowledgement that they too are reasonable human beings. I believe it has been scientifically established by now that a the inside of a woman's brain cannot be compared to what would happen if a troop of vervets took over a spaceship.
And yet, when I think about Miller's female characters, I struggle to explain a single one of their actions in a way that's more meaningful than 'she did it because she is a woman'. I mean, one character actually goes mad at exactly the same time that she gets her first period. I really hope that's a coincidence, but I strongly suspect it's not. It's meant to mean something. Women in Pure are like sexy, insane pinball machines operated by rodents, as leaky and in need of fixing as the cemetary Jean-Baptiste works in. It's a worldview that I'm not impressed by, and I'm not sure why Miller thinks he can get away with it. It's not deal-breakingly bad, but it's there, and it bothered me. That's the problem with having THEMES - your readers become so very attuned to what you're doing that they may notice things you didn't entirely intend to show.
This is exacerbated by the fact that there's just not very much body to the story Miller's trying to tell. It's all drum-roll and no payoff, all heave and (to use a metaphor Miller would be thoroughly in favour of) no puke. We're meant to read Pure and immediately understand that this is 1785 and the French Revolution is looming up just around the historical corner, but, apart from characters discussing The Party of the Future and going to splash some slightly lame anti-monarchical graffiti near the Bastille, nothing particularly revolutionary actually happens. A guy gets asked to clear out a graveyard; he clears out the graveyard; end of story. True, Doctor Guillotin pops up to poke at the bones that get unearthed and the miners hired to help Jean-Baptiste are discontented (don't worry, though, they'll still be discontented 100 years later, in time for Zola to write Germinal about their plight), but it's all oddly coy. I suppose there's so much meaning crammed into Pure that there's not much room left for a plot.
Talking of Zola, Pure definitely gives off whiffs of his style. In Pure, people are feral and oddly shaped, and prone to having sex in public places. There are also strong flavours of Perfume, in that there's a definite sense that a murder may occur at any moment, and a smattering of the kind of weirdness you find in a good Jeanette Winterson novel. All of these are novelists I like, and I think on the whole I did like Pure, but it was so conscious of itself, so intent on what it was doing thematically, that sometimes it was difficult to just read the story without being bludgeoned over the head with meaning.
So, did I enjoy Pure? Broadly, yes I did. It's dark, dirty, fun and easy to read. But does it have a lot of flaws? Definitely. Does it deserve to be Costa Book of the Year? I'm not so sure about that. And could Tea Obreht and The Tiger's Wife wipe the floor with Andew Miller and Pure? Absolutely they could.