I was in Paris this past February and became intrigued with anything that had to do with the Catacombs. I managed to visit the Catacombs and was, to put it mildly, blown away. It appears I’m not the only one who is fascinated by this grisly bone yard under the Parisienne streets. There have been movies made about it, like, As Above,So Below, which is in the found footage genre, and Andrew Miller’s book, Pure. The difference with Miller’s book, is that it’s not a modern day horror tale, it’s a historical fiction novel set in the late 18th century. It centers around one man, Jean-Baptiste Barrate, who is hired to oversee the removal of the bones from the cemetery of Les Innocents in Les Halles, to their new resting place in the Catacombs. It’s a project that took a few years and was rather grim work. Miller takes us into the mind of the man behind the move and presents Paris in all her dirty glory in the days preceding the French Revolution.
The story is based around the removal of the bones from the cemetery of Les Innocents, which had been around since the early Middle Ages. The city of Paris grew up around it and the dead were buried there for well hundreds of years, grave on top of grave. When the Black Plague ravaged Europe in the mid 14th century, Les Innocents housed many massive plague pits where bodies were unceremoniously hurled in to avoid the spread of disease. Over time, the bodies began to decompose and even melt into fat. The weight from two million dead bodies gave way and the cemetery began to collapse in certain parts, becoming unsafe. Paris officials decreed bodies could no longer be buried there by 1780 and shut it down. The bones were moved beginning in 1786 and the last remians were transported in 1787. When he sat down to write this book, Miller was inspired by French medievalist, Philippe Ariès, who was well known for writing extensively on death in the medieval and early modern periods.
Jean-Baptiste Barrate, a former engineer in the mines of Normandy tries his luck to land a prestigious position working for the King. He gets the plum post but finds out the ghastly work it entails and that his endeavour must be undertaken with discretion and secrecy. Les Innocents is a shambles, cemetery walls are collapsing into people’s homes, the stench coming from the decomposing bodies is becoming unmanageable and those who live close to its parameters run the risk of disease. To top it off, Jean is not finding the locals as welcoming as he had hoped. To some, his role in the destruction of the cemetery is taken as a personal affront. He befriends a rather strange mix of people; a prostitute, a hedonistic organist, and an introspective 14 year old girl. Barrette has a few friends, and makes many enemies. He’s praised and reviled, all the while fumbling his way to the end of the long dark tunnel that is this gruesome job. In the backdrop, looms the bubbling tension of the coming French Revolution.
The book has an eclectic mix of characters that bring 18th century Paris to life on its pages. Not many writers focus on this period, with the Tudor period and Middle Ages often being the favoured times in which to nestle historical fiction tales. The setting at the end of the 18th century right before the French Revolution gives the story an edge and interesting backdrop.
It’s a slow burner that never quite picks up its pace. Oddly enough, that never prevented me from getting into the story; I say this in a good way. Once I got over the fact that this wasn’t going to gain ground, I settled in and enjoyed the steady pace of the story telling. The story has a sullen air throughout the entire novel. It’s a rather gloomy book but its pervasive melancholy never detracts from the story. It’s not spooky, or scary, so if you’re looking for that murder mystery, whodunit or supernatural ghost story, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a beautifully written, strange book, with intriguing characters, who have come together to complete a grisly task. Miller is an excellent writer and deft story teller who slowly reels you into this dark world. I highly recommend this book for those of you who love Paris, and enjoy historical fiction.