Andrew Miller makes a strong case for the continuing popularity of historical fiction, with his novel set in pre-revolutionary France…
With books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and The Maid by Kimberly Cutter, historical fiction is riding a wave of popularity at the moment. A genre that was once seen as (quite literally) passé is coming back with a vengeance and Andrew Miller’s book Pure can be seen as part of this revolt.
The work, which is set in pre-revolutionary France, follows a young engineer who has been commissioned to oversee the destruction of a Parisienne church and its cemetery. The engineer, Jean-Baptiste Barratte, encounters many obstacles in this project of progress and the tension between the past and the present, the spiritual and the rational, is a constant feature of Miller’s work. We are persistently reminded of this as one world (the cemetery) is destroyed and another is created. Miller’s Paris is beautifully depicted and, as you read it, you join Barratte in making this cemetery your new home.
From a fictional point of view it is a brilliantly crafted tale which vividly depicts the grime and filth of eighteen-century Paris and Miller’s morbid obsession with death shines through his writing. The characters are all engaging (if a little stereotypical) and the organ player, Armand, is one of the treasures of this piece of fiction. Miller’s style seems to have adapted many ideas from later French writers and it is easy to see the influence of Zola, Flaubert and Maupassant echoing throughout. The danger, with historical fiction is, as William Skidelsky wrote in the Guardian,
even as it strives to inhabit an earlier age, it makes you aware this is what it’s doing, by straining to ape a period style, or advertising its research.
However with this book the reader is unaware of any ‘straining’ or ‘advertising’, and what Miller has created is a true piece of fiction rather than a History book. By oversimplifying the historical context of eighteenth-century Paris and focussing on one particular tension (past/present) Miller is able to engage readers within this very foreign context. He does not obscure the fiction with unnecessary History and, although historians may turn their noses up at such works, for the wider audience it provides a very vivid and interesting story.
Historical fiction is a balancing act and Andrew Miller has proved to be a master of the scales. However Pure is not without its weaknesses and some areas of the plot are notably weaker than others. Whilst some areas of the storyline are analysed with depth, he barely scratches the surface of others. Similarly, characters like the prostitute, the crazy clergyman and the drunken Frenchman are not novel inventions. However despite these minor criticisms, Miller’s work has raised important issues whilst weaving a story of great intrigue and fascination.
Alasdair Dick has just completed his MPhil in Modern European History at Cambridge and is currently undertaking a TEFL Course in Toronto. He writes about anything from European politics to the importance of Jurassic Park. You can read more at his blog here, and find him on Twitter @AlasdairDick