Pure

PurePure by Andrew Miller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am going to start this review with a very important and very relevant fact: I am not interested in history. I really don’t know why that is… I like reading about historical events! I understand the appeal of cataloging and learning from the past. But actually studying and analyzing history? ugghhhh.

So perhaps it is a mystery why I heard about this book and immediately wanted to read it. “Pure” is a story about the Les Innocents cemetery and is probably best described as a historical fiction. This cemetery actually existed, and actually became so full that corpses were packed so tightly that they could no longer properly decay. It stunk up the city and started spilling out through retaining walls into people’s basements, until it was finally dug up and moved elsewhere. It’s all true and the book incorporates all of it into its setting. The book even throws in some references to events which I suspect are true – although I didn’t do enough fact hunting to confirm – such as the discovery of an “incorruptible” body of a girl which was later placed under glass for viewing.

Those parts of the book I actually found quite interesting! Anytime the book started discussing and describing the cemetery I would perk up and dig in. The problem was the book didn’t seem to spend much time actually doing that.

The rest of the plot follows the engineer who is tasked with moving the cemetery. The problem with this is that I found him extremely boring.

Problem #1: Present tense. I hate present tense. Every time I come across it I think I hate it more. It’s so rare to find an author who can use it effectively. It makes even less sense to me to try to use it in this story. We naturally tell stories in past tense – our story telling abilities were honed by telling people about things that have already happened so it just makes sense to us to frame it that way. Present tense shakes things up by being all “woah this is happening RIGHT NOW and we are experiencing it together!” and adds an element of uncertainty about what will happen next. If the protagonist of the story is explaining what happened in the past, well, they probably survived the harrowing sequence they’re describing, right? (unless they’re a ghost I guess).
This story is set in 1785. There is not a single thing about it which is “present”. Furthermore, nothing terribly exciting actually happens. There are no death defying action sequences to “experience” and put you on the edge of your seat and make you wonder what will happen (although there are some close calls here and there, not a single one of them attempts to take advantage of the present tense…). The ending sequences come close to being action-packed, but they miss the mark too. If the intent was to “take me” to 1785, it failed, because the present tense led to so many awkward sentences that I had to trip over and parse. It was exhausting and I finally started skimming a bit just to get it over with.

Problem #2: Unnecessary details. To some degree this is warranted – when introducing the cemetery and the areas around it, there is a LOT of detail, and I suspect it is all accurate to history. The book doesn’t go full out “Unabridged Notre-Dame” and describe the dimensions of every god damn brick, and I suspect actual historians will be delighted by the detail, but it was a bit of a slog.
THOSE details I totally will tolerate, though. It’s historical fiction! The ones I /facepalmed over were the masturbation scenes. On multiple occasions a character will just break into masturbation and then whoops, interrupted by something! In one scene it just casually throws in “rubs herself a little between her legs” when describing getting ready for bed. I’m not a prude, I don’t mind sexual content, but it’s nice if there’s a reason for it to be there. There are enough rambling words in this book that throwing in descriptions of penises and random masturbatory actions feels over the top. The story does cover some romantic relationships, but if it was attempting to build up the characters in preparation for those later scenes, it failed to communicate it to me.

Problem #3: With all the detail that’s thrown around, the book constantly refers to a “Comte de S-.” There is no explanation for why the name is written like that. If I were into history maybe I would know, but a footnote with an explanation might have been nice.

Problem #4: The book feels like it’s not going anywhere. The story of the cemetery is interesting, but that was “already written”, so to speak. The stuff packed around the story of the cemetery feels like cheap filler with no real purpose. Again, if I were more interested in historical stuff I might be more impressed with the accuracy, or the portrayal of the people of the time, or something like that. As it is, I just found myself uninvested and uninterested in the characters. Which is too bad because I did actually find the setting interesting, so maybe it could have gotten me more interested in historical fiction. Oh well.

It really feels like this was a half-formed idea about a story revolving around the story of the cemetery, but it was never fully fleshed out. The story of the cemetery was interesting, but it’s inherently interesting, and it feels like the book relies on its interestingness to carry it. The rest of the book had some potential with the whole “People want the cemetery gone/People do not want the cemetery gone and become hostile to anyone trying to remove it” angle, but that’s not really designated as the focus of the book either. Instead, we spend a lot of time watching people masturbate and pine over prostitutes. Why.

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About tagracat
I am not a professional, I don't get paid to review shit, I am just opinionated and I seem to have some sort of disorder that results in spewing my opinions onto the internet. I enjoy writing long-winded posts about things and sometimes I like to pretend people want to read them, so a blog seemed an appropriate place to stuff it. But mostly I just like writing about things.

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