A year of bones, of grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of friendship too. Of desire. Of love.... A year unlike any other he has lived.
Deep in the heart of Paris, its oldest cemetery is, by 1785, overflowing, tainting the very breath of those who live nearby. Into their midst comes Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, provincial engineer charged by the king with demolishing it.
At first Baratte sees this as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long, he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to his own.
©2012 Andrew Miller (P)2012 Hodder & Stoughton
The true story at the centre of the book - the removal of thousands of bodies/bones from central Paris - is really amazing; but it plays an almost secondary role in this book as the main emphasis is on the characters and the atmosphere. These are compelling, as is the use of language by A Miller: sometimes clipped and spare, at others almost florid and often very beautiful. I wasn't as engaged by the book as I had hoped, possibly because I didn't really like any of the characters very much. However, it is well worthy of 4 stars. There is a sense of anxiety, bordering on menace at times, that builds gradually, not surprising given the subject matter. Very well narrated.
The setting is intriguing, as you can see from the publisher's details; the handling of the story and the gradual descent into darkness with the counterpoint of the development of sincere love are clever. The use of language is often almost poetic, a delight to listen to. However, at times all these elements just tip over the fine line between the satisfying and the irritating and strain the suspension of belief. It is rather a shame that Jonathan Aris sometimes has trouble with the pronunciation of the (numerous) French names, as in every other way he is a masterly reader. All in all, worth listening to but not, for me, a book of the year.
Will read anything within reason.
I bought this book ages ago and then allowed it to languish while I read some of my more 'flashy' titles. Now I have finally got around to giving this a listen I can't believe this took me so long.
This is a vivid account of a Paris filled with physical and moral corruption. Jean Baptiste is an idealistic young engineer from the North charged with clearing a cemetery so overcrowded that bones are exposed to the air and scattered around the grounds. He lodges with a family who live so close to the cemetery that their breath and food is tainted by their environment. The natural assumption is that Jean Baptiste would be applauded for the work he is conducting, but this is not the case, and he meets resistance from all sorts of strange and mysterious sources.
The details in this story are fascinating. From the food people ate, to the clothes they wore and their daily routines. Some of it was strangely moving. For example when Jean Baptiste retires for the night to face a long and lonely evening in his own company, I felt saddened that such a wonderful young man is forced to live like that. The central love story is unconventional to say the least, and the courtship scenes are played out with tremendous humour.
This is one of those books that gives an enriching insight into history and I know I will go back to it again and again. Jonathan Aris delivers an outstanding performance and I am now looking for other books where he is the narrator. If I could give this higher than 5 stars, I certainly would.
I really enjoyed this book. The whole atmosphere was very true to the period. It was well-written and despite continually filling me with a slight sense of dread, I liked it! I finished it a couple of weeks ago and to my surprise have found myself missing it. It somehow gets to you.
I thought the read was quite good. Not outstanding but definitely didn't detract from the story.
I picked up this book without much research, taking a gamble based on the Costa book award it won last year. I'm glad I did because it turned out to be a joy to read, mostly due to the writing style of Miller which reminded me throughout of various classic novels with it's tightly crafted prose. I am already looking forward to exploring more of Miller's writing.
The novel is set in per-revolutionary Paris in 1785, and follows the story of a young "provincial" engineer who comes to the city seeking career advancement by taking on a project for the Versailles palace. He receives the unenviable task of dismantling the cemetery of Les Innocents which is poisoning the city, including relocating it's occupants (these being real-life events). The story follows his project in detail and only indirectly addresses the politics of the day as France approaches revolution. It manages nonetheless to convey much of the social structure and brewing tensions through the adventures it's protagonist Jean-Baptiste Baratte and his encounters with "the party of the future". Personally I would have liked a little more politics, a little more concrete information on the changes which were beginning, a little more Beche to balance Baratte, but this did not ultimately take away from my enjoyment of the novel.
Well worth a read.
Highly recommended. As well as being beautifully descriptive of the era and life in a Paris suburb, I found the overarching story of the clearance of a cemetry unexpectedly interesting. The interaction of those directly associated with the clearance plus the characters on the peripheries, the smells and the intertwined relationships are all really engaging. I will certainly listen again.
Avid reader and listener, psychologist by profession historian by nature
A great book of such an interesting historical period, with some truly memorable characters and great twists and turns in the story itself. Extremely evocative of pre-revolutionary France and the amazing city that was/is Paris. Brilliant.
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