(4.5 stars) In pristine sentences and uncompromising descriptions, used with great irony, Andrew Miller tells of a young engineer from rural France in 1785 whose job is to empty the overflowing cemetery at the Church of the Innocents in central Paris and rebury all the bones in the catacombs, for sanitary reasons. Set in 1785, just four years before the French Revolution, Miller's main character, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, supervises the emptying of over twenty burial pits located within a small, enclosed area. The work is "both delicate and gross," as the entire neighborhood around the cemetery is putrid after the cemetery's long use (and, more recently, the interment of fifty thousand people in less than a month in mass graves during a plague). The stench permeates everything - buildings, food, and ultimately people, and Baratte has only one year to make it "pure."
Despite the unusual and unsavory subject matter, Miller recreates the human side of the story - to make the reader empathize with Baratte, to see how important the job is to him, to show how he longs for acceptance - and even a job as unsavory this one quickly involves the reader in the story and its historical setting. Details about Paris in this pre-revolutionary time stick in the reader's memory: an elephant, somewhere in Versailles, that exists on Burgundy wine; a revolutionary group devoted to the future, that plasters warnings about the church and aristocracy on walls and buildings; the nearly hopeless lives of the miners Baratte recruits to work on this horrific job; and later, their differences in outlook from the masons he hires for additional on-site work.
Throughout the novel, Miller's descriptive details are unforgettable and often symbolic: a priest described as "a big wingless bat in the dusk"; Parisian theatre-goers "fighting their way through the doors like scummed water draining out of a sink"; a man with eyes "like two black nails hammered into a skull; and an crazed old man "nude as a worm," who begins to howl. The coming revolution is foreshadowed through the eyes of Baratte, whose own new suit of clothes, is not completely comfortable since it smacks of another class. The role of Heloise, a prostitute with a good heart and the intellect of a modern woman, shows how indifferent the court is to the resilience and resourcefulness of, not only women, but of the talented and thwarted men of the country. The characters' attitudes toward life, death, God, and the afterlife echo throughout the novel as bodies are disinterred and cleaned for reburial in the catacombs.
Ultimately, Miller succeeds in making this unlikely subject and its unusual characters both engaging and thought-provoking, requiring the reader to think beyond the limitations of most stories which are set so deep in the past. Baratte himself learns during his year, and he reflects the increasing awareness of a growing segment of the population that the life of the court of Versailles has reached the end of the line. When Baratte finishes his final report for the minister, his return to Versailles is filled with striking parallels and contrasts to the details of his arrival. Miller never overplays his conclusion, however, respecting the reader's ability to fill in some of the blanks that make this novel so memorable. An unusual and beautifully written novel which shines new light on some of the elements which can empower the oppressed and lead to revolution. Mary Whipple