Published: 2012 by Sceptre
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “For his part, Jean-Baptiste prefers not to think of bones as having owners, names. If he has to start treating them as former people, farriers, mothers, former engineers perhaps, how will he ever dare sink a spade into the earth and part for all eternity a foot from a leg, a head from its rightful neck?”
Set in eighteenth-century Paris, this is a wonderfully macabre piece of historical fiction, which draws its inspiration from a real event: the closure and purification of an overcrowded cemetery – Les Innocents – which involved the removal of the thousands of corpses that had been laid to rest there. What sorts of emotions would be stirred up by this most grisly work? This is the question at the heart of Miller’s novel and he does a brilliant job of evoking the conflicted relationship various characters have with the cemetery. Local residents feel the consecrated ground as part of their being even as its odours seep in and taint their larders. Meanwhile, Miller’s protagonist, the young engineer Jean-Baptiste, is anxious to justify himself as the man who purified Paris but struggles to reconcile his grand ambitions with the gruesome nature of the daily business at hand.
This is a dark but and at times almost unpleasantly immersive read, really conjuring the sights, sounds and smells of a city teetering towards revolution. On a personal level, Jean-Baptiste’s commission was something I could imagine particularly vividly since on our Paris honeymoon in 2008 my husband and I visited the Catacombs where many of the bones from Les Innocents ended up being stored. There are miles and miles of tunnels, literally lined floor to ceilings with bones: “Arrête! C’est ici l’Empire de la Mort.” This book rekindled many of the emotions I experienced during that visit, which was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life.