by Andrew Miller
I was put onto this book by Karen at Bookertalk. I downloaded it to my Kindle and it has languished there for a few months. When Bookertalk recently reviewed another of Miller’s books, I decided to get down to reading this one. My ‘review’ is, as usual, cursory and designed mainly to remind me what I’ve read. If you happen to read this and want a more expansive and polished review, please follow the link to Karen’s site.
The setting – Paris immediately before the Revolution – is convincing right down to the smallest details of how people dress, the rooms they live in, their daily hygiene habits, the tools they use. But the novel is not full of description. There is a compelling story, and with the backdrop of the revolutionaries meeting in secret and painting slogans on walls, the reader does expect things to ‘blow up’ at any minute. They do not, however, and the main character, the engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is able to complete his task of emptying the overfilled and stinking cemetery of Les Innocents. Only at the very end of the book, when he arrives at Versailles palace to present his final report, does he perceive that things are not as they were.
Other characters are brought vividly to life: Barrette’s former friend Lecoeur who has turned to the bottle; Armand the revolutionary organist; Héloïse Godard whom Baratte eventually takes as his mistress; even the side characters who support the disagreeable work of Baratte and his team of miners in various ways. Jean-Baptiste himself grows from the provincial innocent who first arrives in Paris from Normandy to take up his commission, to someone who can assert himself with tradespeople, landlord and ministers as well as managing a large team of people.
This was a hugely enjoyable read, and I will come back to this author.