Being an unabashed lover of graves and cemeteries, I felt a genuine thrill when I found out about Andrew Miller’s 2011 novel, Pure (Sceptre). It still took me a long time to purchase and read it, but once I started, I was promptly absorbed.
Miller’s novel has this great and remarkable point in its favour: its originality. The premise is daring and unusual, the setting has an uncanny appeal, and the protagonist has an Enlightened authenticity not often found in period literature. And, much of the time I was reading, I had no idea where the plot would take me next. The clearing of a cemetery, on the eve of the French Revolution, could easily have devolved into simple horror, but Miller’s touch is subtle as he unfolds the influence of Les Saints-Innocents on the fresh, Enlightened, northern engineer Baratte. The scene is constructed through suggestion of the evils of the cemetery; and since they are never confirmed, the psychological tension between the newcomer, the locals and the cemetery is well built up and maintained.
Sometimes this lack of background and explanation works – in Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, for example. Too often, however, when much effort has gone into creating an arc of tension, the result is anti-climax. Unfortunately, I found this to be the case with Pure. The shock and horror of the final key event, where Baratte’s friend, the overseer of the cemetery works, although admittedly a broken man and inebriate, goes mad in a single night, comes out of nowhere, and cannot simply be left undefined as the possible unwholesome influence of the cemetery. Because it simply happens, and is not explained, it gives an unpleasant sense of the morbid sensationalism and cheap shock Miller had so carefully steered clear of before.
The issue with this plot point is that the characters and narrator both pass over the fact that, in his fit of madness, the overseer rapes a fourteen-year-old girl. The horror of that event alone is lost in a frame of necrophilia and suicide; the girl simply disappears into her house for a few months, and re-emerges healed, happy to keep the baby, and to enter into a relationship with one of the men who dismantled the cemetery by which she has lived all her life.
It was disappointing to find that a novel that showed such promise in terms of originality and authenticity should fall so short when it comes to female characters and their experience. In the end, the three main female characters still do no more than slot into the stereotypes of the whore with the heart of gold, the victim, and the madwoman. Issues such as the trauma arising from rape and prostitution are passed over, and seem to dissolve entirely when the woman in question is provided with a man. It would be sad to think that, after inventing a plot premise little short of brilliant, and a protagonist at once historically sound and possessing sufficient human appeal for a modern-day audience, Andrew Miller’s imagination should have worn itself out before he got round to the rest of the plot, let alone the female characters.