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Bookclub: Pure by Andrew Miller

Wednesday 27 February 2013, 14:34

Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4

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Editor's note: This month Jim Naughtie talks to the author Andrew Miller about his book Pure - winner of the 2011 Costa Prize. You can hear the programme on Sunday 3 March at 4pm and on Thursday 7 March at 3.30pm. Next month's bookclub features Elif Shafak's novel 'The Forty Rules of Love'.

Andrew Miller Andrew Miller

I think Andrew Miller is the first author on Bookclub to declare a kinship with the dead. He was ruminating with our group of readers about the point in life – he thinks it comes when you pass 40 – after which you are always aware of a certain taste which he identifies as the taste of death. This sounds more ghoulish than Andrew makes it seem, but it does catch accurately the feeling that allowed him to create the world of Pure, his Costa Prize-winning novel set in Paris just before the Revolution. We are dazzled by a picture of decay.

The title came to him in part, he thinks, because nothing in the book is pure: everything is a little poisoned or rotten. Parts of it remind me of Patrick Suskind's bizarre and addictive novel Perfume, subtitled The Story of a Murderer, in which the main character has such a highly-developed sense of smell that he inhabits a world of his own. Smells are important in Pure, too, because the story is set in possibly the most unsavoury place in Paris, the cemetery in the area we know as Les Halles – where 50,000 bodies were buried in a single month after an outbreak of plague. The man who is given the task of clearing the place – purifying it, in practice – is Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer still in his 20s, who introduces us to the sounds and smells of a teeming city, teetering on the brink of social and political disintegration.

Andrew's achievement is to provide an utterly original and unforgettable backdrop for a story that involves love and deceit, mental illness and poverty, and explores the lot of women in the Paris of that era. He starts a book, he says, with characters rather than a theme.  The story arises from their conversations and interactions, their lives.

"I was interested initially in the engineer and in the people he encounters... the people he lodges with... the city as a place where things might happen, and the cemetery itself - Les innocents -  at the centre of that.  This is how I like to go into a piece of work.  I let themes take care of themselves.  When I was doing my first novel, I was worried that they wouldn't or couldn't, but this is my sixth. By now I know."

The characters themselves do demand attention. Baratte himself has an heroic quality – as Andrew puts it, he keeps on going whatever is happening around him. In the cemetery we meet Jeanne, a girl who is a picture of innocence - she lives with her grandfather like the archetypal fairy-tale character – and she loses that innocence brutally when she's raped.  The life that the cemetery reveals as well as the death) is raw and passionate, with the vivid colours of a gothic picture. Jeanne's assailant is cruel. But he's disturbed, a victim of sorts himself, and it would be an unusual reader who didn't feel a small pang of pity for him as well as for Jeanne.

"It's interesting to write about loneliness," Andrew told us. "It has an extreme outcome – a terrible thing – but novels need to get beyond simple judgements of people."

Baratte himself is a character with depth because he stands out against the pre-revolutionary background. He's trying to use rationality in his work, and he seems rather different from the more fervent radicals who'll soon be at the barricades: a country boy who wanted to make a career building roads and bridges and worried about what the political upheavals might bring. Andrew thought he might be described as an "ironic revolutionary figure".

The world that Baratte explores, and tries to cleanse, is fascinating and unforgettable. I do hope you enjoy our discussion of Pure, on Sunday March 3, repeated on Thursday March 7.

Next month, our choice is Elif Shafak's novel The Forty Rules of Love, and I should tell you about our next recordings. They are with the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, in Swansea on 18 March and then with Jim Crace at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival on 24 April.

Happy reading



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Identifying the top ten game changers operating in the UK today.


See the latest on our blog


Find out about this year's panel and theme