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    The era immediately preceding the French Revolution presents such rich pickings for the historical novelist that the relative scarcity of English-language fiction set in the period comes as a surprise. We might charitably suggest that our authors are intimidated by the long shadow of A Tale of Two Cities, or less generously remark that they are too busy picking the corpses of the first world war to attend to an earlier conflict with altogether more ambiguous historical overtones.

    Andrew Miller’s Pure strides with admirable self-assurance into the pyretic atmosphere of Paris in 1785. We meet our hero in the Palace of Versailles, an ambitious young man supplicating himself to the ancien régime. As an intelligent, aspiring provincial, Jean-Baptiste Barrate calls to mind Julien Sorel, the champion of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and patron saint of every young man who has ever fought the conflicting urges to climb society and destroy it. An engineer commissioned by the ecclesiastical authorities to oversee the clearance of an overflowing inner-city cemetery, Jean-Baptiste recognises the opportunity to advance both his career and the cause of progress, which he considers to be co-extensive with the good.

    The author quickly, and without flourish, establishes the world in which his characters live. There is mercifully little exposition on the past’s inability to sanitise its urban spaces, and no obsolete diseases are dragged from the depths of the British Library to bludgeon the reader into suspending their disbelief. Miller’s quick eye allows him to eschew tedious historical signposting in favour of details that convey an impression of the period without being limited to it. One passage describes the boredom of boys outside a rural chapel on Christmas Day who ‘can find no more ice to crack with the heel of their boots’, unobtrusively conveying an unconscious disenfranchisement that would have been obliterated by meticulous descriptions of their ragged breeches and penchant for boules. These neatly patterned observations, married to the author’s fine ear, insulate the book from the accusation of intergenerational tourism aimed at much of the genre to which it belongs.

    A range of supporting characters is, on the whole, similarly well-crafted. Jean-Baptiste’s troubled friend and colleague Lecoeur — there are plenty of vaguely allegorical or allusive names, incidentally — is the most compelling of the cast, and might have played the lead in a darker version of the same story. Flamboyant church organist Armand provides comic relief and a little unresolved political intrigue, though the women of the story lapse too frequently into archetype. I am sure, for instance, that if beautiful, Rousseau-reading prostitutes were as abundant in society as they are in popular fiction then we would all be doomed to immorality.

    However, Miller’s novel aspires to more than the evocation of the City of Light before the dawn. Its first third constructs a framework of ideological and psychological challenges for the hero to negotiate, though the author’s ventures into the realm of ideas are altogether less deftly handled. Light and dark are appropriated as predictable metaphors for the conflict between reason and superstition, progressive and reactionary, and barely a page is allowed to pass without some telling reference to illumination and enlightenment. I dedicate the opening sentence of this paragraph to pastiche.

    I was pleased, nonetheless, to see these hurdles erected. How we vicariously experience Jean-Baptiste’s dilemmas forces us to reflect upon the choices we ourselves would make. Support the revolution, with the retrospective knowledge that the Terror will succeed it? Or align with the reactionaries to protect one’s own interests? Miller sets up the question but then, maddeningly, ducks it in favour of an insipid resolution.

    Thus what threatens to be a novel of ideas becomes a conventional Bildungsroman. A boy moves to the big city, overcomes obstacles, experiences revelation (via an unconvincing peripeteia), finds love, becomes a man. The plot rattles along and the prose is admirable, but there is little here that might cause us to reassess our understanding of either the past or the present. Ultimately, Pure lacks the courage of its convictions, a little force of the soul.

    Benjamin Eastham is editor of the White Review.