Hazel McHaffie

cemetery

Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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