Andrew Miller’s Pure was the 2011 Costa Book of the Year. Set a few years before the French Revolution of 1789, it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, and engineer, who is given the job of removing the cemetery of Les Innocents from Paris. Removing it complete, as it has become a physical and psychical stain on the city.

It’s a wonderful premise set in a turbulent time. But there’s something not quite right with the book. On the PhD at Newcastle, we were recently given a seminar by the prose playwright and senior lecturer Margaret Wilkinson on structure and narrative pace, taught how to be better readers-as-writers.

Margaret’s lesson is that there should be a few essential elements in each novel:

  • A trigger, which comes within the first few pages
  • The trigger creates a problem for the protagonist, which they must overcome
  • There are three main plot points, or obstacles, which make the situation worse even as the protagonist attempts to overcome them
  • These plot points are evenly spaced (say, in a novel of 360 pages, at around pages 100, 200, 300) to ensure narrative pace.
  • They also ascend in terms of tension, so the final plot point is the most tense
  • There is a climax at which the problem is resolved one way or the other
  • The climax comes very soon after the final plot point, and very near the end

This is the plot (the selection of events) which reveals – but only partially – the story. This is obviously the basis of good storytelling, and is often broken by those who have mastered the art. But as a basic premise, it is clearly there in many good books. (We examined this in The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas).

When you examine Andrew Miller’s Pure, there seems to be this structure (spoiler alert!):

Element Note Page
Trigger Baratte is awaiting orders from the minister that he is tasked with removing a cemetery—a whole cemetery!—from the city of Paris. He does not have a choice. First few pages
Problem It is against Baratte’s wishes and he feels it is a poisoned chalice – how can he succeed in life either way with such a task? He works out how, and goes and gets 30 men, miners, who he used to work with, to begin the awful work.
Plot Point 1 The young woman Ziguette Monnard – Baratte is lodging with them next to the cemetery – comes into his room and, driven mad by the idea he is removing the cemetery, whacks him over the head with his bronze ruler, inflicting serious injury and causing some brain damage (he loses words). Page 189
Plot Point 2 The young girl Jeanne who lives in the church is raped by Lecoeur, Baratte’s old friend from the mines and his second in command. Lecoeur has gone mad overnight, also committing an act of necrophilia. Page 269
Plot Point 3 One of the miners is killed in an accident, a beam falls from the church as they are dismantling it. Page 319
Climax The miners induce Baratte to help them in burning down the cemetery and church. Page 330
End He returns to the palace where the story began to deliver his report, but the palace is empty. He witnesses men doing something awful with an elephant (which is mentioned early on as a gift to the minister/king). Page 342

There is some beautiful writing in Miller’s book, some wonderful phrases. The depiction of 18th century France is often exquisite and is laden with the anticipation of the revolution that is to come, especially the descriptions of the Palace and the unrest in the city. And the action of removal of the cemetery keeps the story moving. Many people loved the book. But there are a number of problems with both the structure and the pace of the novel. In terms of the plot above:

  • The first plot point comes too late, and the rest are too crammed together at the back of the book.
  • The pace of the novel, told mainly through narration rather than dialogue or scene, mainly in fact through description, lacks motivation in the first half, and then speeds through too quickly in the second half.
  • There’s nothing believable about young Madame Ziguette’s connection to the cemetery to motivate her to attack Baratte.
  • There is also very little to suggest Lecoeur would rape the young girl; importantly, it offers a slight chance of an obstacle (the miners will leave) to the job being done. But so what: go and get 30 more men.

Most of all, none of these ‘obstacles’ make the difficulty of finishing the job (of removing the cemetery) and of doing it without losing his soul, more difficult. On page 339 Miller writes:

“The cemetery has stolen something out of him, some vitality he will need to restore before he is ready to go on […] then, when he is ready […] he might visit his old teacher, Peronnet, ask for something decent, something small, something that does not place him at the disposal of men he does not respect, who do not respect him…”

Okay, so he’s had a tough job. But it’s not life threatening. He needs a month in the country (and now there is a fine book by J L Carr) to recover. That’s hardly the development of a character through the challenge of his life.

There needed to be much more of a conflict for Baratte. There was no tension in the novel regarding his challenge. The cemetery was always going to be cleared. And if it wasn’t? Someone failing at a job can be an incredibly tense story, but here it is not. Because he doesn’t want the job anyway. Okay, so, if he fails he knows his future will be lost. Okay, so make more of this. But his future is not lost. And he’s hardly lost his way—just needs a little time to recover before asking for a different task.

The attack by the young woman on the engineer is perhaps the most useful obstruction, in that it causes brain damage and headaches and, as one blogger puts it, foregrounds the fascinating issue of vulnerability. But still it does not stop the work on the cemetery going ahead. Does it obstruct the man’s great future? Not really. And Miller foregrounds the date—only a few years before the Revolution, of course—so that we already know, fear, Baratte’s future lies in tatters anyway. How could Miller have done this differently? In a book, I’m not sure. But Mel Gibson does this splendidly in his film Apocalypto, when the future of the Mayan tribal hunters in the forests is first destroyed by the soldiers from the Mayan city; but once the hero overcomes all these obstacles, he is then hit by the massive and unconquerable surprise of the arrival of the Spanish. It’s a wonderful bit of film and that uses the historical record as a twist to the plot, rather than, as Miller does, as a looming shadow.

There are also other problems with the characterisation:

  • The miners are generally undefined; a rabble that play a huge role in the story but remain undifferentiated, except for one with a half-finger and violet eyes;
  • And this one with half-a-finger and violet eyes looms over the story as if he is going to play a pivotal role… but does not. When he is the leader at the end who mourns the dead comrade and leads the burning of the cemetery, so what, it’s not done with any conflict or meaning—we have no understanding of this man’s history, thoughts or motives.

This reminds me very much of Samantha Hunt’s second novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else. There’s a wonderful central story in Hunt’s book, which was shortlisted for the Orange, but it’s lost within the four of five other stories which are all given almost equal plot time. There’s some strange story about a friend of the female protagonist’s father who invents a time machine but doesn’t really. But it added nothing to the main story; nor did the love affair between the young woman and her new friend.

Imagine if you will five or six stories all getting 16% of the action in a novel. Which one do you focus on? That’s what happened in Hunt’s novel, although not everyone agrees. In Miller’s, the secondary characters, the miner with the violet eyes and Heloise, the prostitute who becomes Baratte’s mistress, all get some sort of focused billing in plot-time, but that never comes to any importance in the main story. That is, the authors have not edited out or back-grounded enough these secondary layers, and have not really worked out how they contribute in a meaningful way to the story.

It’s been an incredibly useful lesson—how to learn to read as writers better. To read a novel for structure. And for anyone who has read Pure, I’d be very keen to hear your thoughts on the matter. What did you make of the novel? And does looking at it in this structural way reveal anything for you that you may have less clearly felt before? And how do flawed novels get shortlisted for and then win awards?!

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