I’ve never been one for historical novels and so when I began Pure by Andrew Miller I was convinced I wouldn’t like it. I wasn’t entirely wrong, well at least not for the first part. I found the filthy world of the 1700’s into which I was plunged interesting but not captivating. The main character whose life we follow, Jean-Baptiste, didn’t make any great impression on me and I struggled to imagine just what kind of person he would be, his personality seemed akin to that of a goldfish. With retrospect I can now appreciate that his complete lack of colour or depth was clearly deliberately honed in order to express the manner in which Jean-Baptiste, finding himself very much out of this depth in Paris with the insurmountable task of clearing a cemetery ahead of him, was more than happy to follow others, attempt to fit in with the locals and the latest fashions, even if this did mean wearing a ridiculous pistachio coloured suit. He didn’t want to offend or affront anyone and so tried to keep himself to himself. Although Jean-Baptiste’s resistance to having any real shape or form left me somewhat cold towards the protagonist, he does however go on to meet the most interesting array of people.
With the turning of the pages my enjoyment of the book grew, Miller gives us a perfect cast of characters to keep us entertained and it was thanks to this that I didn’t abandon book before it got going. Then we get to the really good bit, the bit which in my eyes is the real turning point in the book. How much can I mention in this blog without ruining the story?! Maybe I should simply say that a life-changing event occurs to Jean-Baptiste approximately half-way through the novel and it is this life changing(almost life ending) event that at long last gives the man character and personality. Miller rather superbly writes the rest of the novel from the point of view of a man that nearly met his maker, and this to me is where his skill really shines. Was the first past of the novel weak and tepid because it was an honest portrayal of Jean-Baptiste’s mood and personality at this time? Or did Miller write two completely different books and stick them together to make one? The second half of the book is brilliant, the first half is ok.
The novel as a whole is like a complex mosaic of characters and their stories, some of the pieces match and stick well together, or aspects feel under-developed and out-of-place; but as a whole the effect is wonderful.
One of the themes which touched me most deeply is the constant conflict inside Jean-Baptiste, he has landed himself an important job and works to the orders of the King, he’s managing an important project and by doing so earns himself a name and wealth; however when he goes back to Belleme, his home town he looks at his younger brother’s simpler farming life with a longing and envy:
A country beau. A man adapted, a man in his rightful place. No wonder he has never shown much envy of his older brother’s success, his education, his being taken up by powerful men. His ambitions were always of a different order -less fancy, more easily grasped. And which of them now is the freer? Which has more pleasure in life? Which, to some clear-eyed judge of such things, would seem like the man arrived, the one whose wheel has risen?
Although, rather tragically, Jean-Baptiste realised that his younger brother is by far the freer, happier of the two; he also realises that he could never return to his home town Belleme for a simpler, more rustic means of life. It is possibly this internal conflict that most people living in London can relate to. Of the friends I keep none of them have their families in London, none of them grew up in this town; so they, like myself, live in an incessant battle: London life is hard and not sustainable let’s move back to the simpler life; the simpler life is now foreign to us and a glove that no longer fits.
A couple of weekends ago I went back to stay with my relatives in the depths of Wales and remembered how good life had been when your neighbours were all folk with simpler, more wholesome needs, that were people who could all be trusted and relied upon. But then when I envision moving back to that world I don’t think I would ever fit into that wholesome world again, as if London has stripped me of some purity that they’ve managed to preserve. So I continue my life in the grime of London and complain about the rudeness of the people, the ever-increasing prices and competitive nature which is encouraged in all beings.
I was happy when Jean-Baptiste at the end of the novel appears to have found his peace and purity; I hope I’ll find mine without going through the same painful, trying and stinking channels he travelled.