Paris, 1785. Engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is commissioned to clear a graveyard and demolish the accompanying church. He takes lodgings, makes friends in the church organist, and contracts a friend from home to work alongside him and also to oversee the miners who he brings in to carry out the work. Baratte sees himself as a modern man, a part of the enlightenment, but the longer he resides within view of the graveyard, a malaise comes over him and he becomes increasingly distracted and overwhelmed by the task he’s been set.
Pure has been something of a phenomenon; a well-received historical novel that’s been generally enthusiastically reviewed in the broadsheet press and has won major prizes. And though it’s impressive in parts (the book certainly exudes a creeping sense of unease and dread) and there’s an original mind at work in terms of the writing, the overall effect for me is one of detached admiration in the novel rather than a close emotional connection. Pure comes across as a 21st century literary novel displaced to 18th century France; it’s a book about being disaffected now, not then. That may be part of the novel’s project; to indicate how these feelings may be perpetual, though at times it felt as though the opposite lesson was coming across. I appreciate that it’s a book which has found and audience and I can see why that readership’s there. It’s just that, like the protagonist, like Baratte himself, I became distanced, distracted.