Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Human Storms - Charley R Reviews "Pure", by Andrew Miller

Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste, a young provincial engineer charged by the king withe demolishing it.

At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.

Normally, whenever I see awards on the front of books, I’m the first one to sniff and decide to judge the choice of the critics myself. Sometimes I walk away wondering if someone’s swapped the prize winner’s cover with the interior of some indiscernible mass of overcomplicated prose and anaemic grammar. Other times, I nod and think “good choice”.

Pure resulted in an eyebrow-raising combination of both.

It’s beautiful.

Present tense and third person narration have never looked so gorgeous on a page together. The sentences sound as if they’re tumbling straight out of someone’s head; raw, unpolished, and with that strange abstract nature that could only originate in the weirdness of the human brain. It’s a book of paradoxes – we’re so close inside our narrator’s head that sometimes I found my own thoughts getting tangled up with his, and I forgot which belonged to who. We see people so clearly through his eyes that we hardly notice his personal biases because we’re thinking like he does, learning like he does, feeling like he does. And we’re not even told his name until the second chapter.

Yet, at the same time, it feels like we’re watching the world through some sort of celestial mirror. While we are living pretty much inside Jean-Baptiste’s head (yes, that’s his name, though most of the time it’s never used and we simply know him by his gender-specific pronoun) but perhaps it is this closeness to his raw thoughts and feelings that distances him from us. His actions are described briefly and sharply on the page, with no embellishment, and hardly an adverb in sight.

There’s also an odd feeling of readerly intrusion in the writing. We feel, like our narrator, out of place, unable to grasp why things happen quite as they do. Even with the most engaging and friendly of the large cast of characters – gentle, elfish Jeanne; charming rogue Armand; sensible, robust Lisa – one feels detached. For all I was fascinated by them, I could never tell you that I liked or disliked a character, because it is so impossible to empathise with them. And I never knew how it felt to be honestly afraid to trust a narrator before I read this book. Because, as far as I can tell, Jean-Baptiste is the least trustworthy of them all. The inner workings of that man’s mind are a dangerously unbalanced place, even at the best of times.

However, as is often the trend with books like Pure, the actual storyline is marginal. It’s not dull in the slightest; there’s lust and anguish and self-discovery and pure mad humanity aplenty – as well as a particularly interesting attempted murder with a brass ruler – to keep you turning pages. Nonetheless, it’s not the events themselves, but their causes, outcomes and messages, which are important. Subsequently, there is a general lack of climax and closure that could be a cause of bother to some readers; the end of the book, in particular, I found rather lacking. Plenty of important events were skimmed over, or not explained fully, and the final chapter doesn’t seem like it ought to be final at all. Perhaps that was the point but, a mon humble avis, it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Thus, altogether, I’d give this book a thousand awards for its gorgeous prosal style and sheer gripping humanity, while at the same time for making our fellow human beings seem like complete strangers. We see, hear, smell and feel everything as they do, and yet at the same time we do none of these things. By the end of it I’d say one either wants to throw the book across the room in frustration, or fights to stop oneself narrating your thoughts in the style of the book (as I had to do, for about three hours).

A plot-driven page-turner it may not be, but you can’t deny there’s a certain macabre fascination in watching the slow destruction of a person’s mind and soul, and then see them rise, a changed stranger, from the heart of the storm.

"Pure" is available in paperback from all major booksellers, as well as in ebook format.

~ Charley R


  1. Your missing some of the back cover blurb... QQ It stops at "he begins to suspect that the destruction of" on my screen.

    But an intriguing take on the book. There are some people who can influence my thought style, so I'd probably be like you and take a whlie to shake of the book - as amusing as thinking that way might be. :}

    Though I like that the comments on the book seem associated with the birds pecking at the man on the cover. Nicely ironic that.

    1. Oh blast - the formatting's gone mad and eats the blurb after a certain point, it's really frustrating, but I can't seem to fix it *bites it*

      It is very ironic. But seriously, thought-mangling or no, read the book. It's amazing stuff.

  2. I am exactly the same - if I read a book with interesting narrative style, I narrate like that for hours afterwards. It's terrible. Sometimes I talk to myself in French, too.

    Sounds interesting enough, though I prefer a nice big ending. If you remind me in a few months' time I might read it, but I've got such a huge reading pile at the moment, it's ridiculous. Ehehe.

    1. Haha, I know, the ending is such a pity because the rest of the book is really well done. Perhaps i shall remind you in the summer when we're both not drowning under piles of work xD

  3. Present tense, third person? An interesting combination, eh? I first read that syle in *Unwind* and...well...loved it! Something about your review makes me want to read this book. Maybe it's the "hardly an adverb in sight". Or the "living pretty much inside Jean-Baptiste’s head". Sounds like a promising read.

    1. It is very cool. I'm not usually one for present tense, but it works so well here it was so weird to think of it being written in anything else.

      Do read it, though. It's not a big book, and it really is something else. *whisper conspiratorially* dooooooo iiiiiit.