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by Andrew Miller

5*

A brilliantly written fiction, set against the removal of Les Innocents cemetery in Paris in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution.

When the story begins, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a rather staid young man. Freshly arrived from his Normandy home and ambitious to advance his engineering career, he is given the job of clearing Les Innocents cemetery, a place literally over-flowing with the dead, fouling the food, tainting the breath of those who share its air.

It’s a surprisingly compelling story and the writing is startlingly good; accidental death, attempted murder, a suicide, arson and rape pepper Baratte’s journey of self-discovery, as the first inklings of the coming revolution simmer in the city, occasionally bursting on to the page in the form of graffiti and the pronouncements of the mercurial Armand, the church organist.

The novel is peppered with a progression of remarkable characters: his sober landlords, the Monnets, his old friend and comrade Lecoeur, who brings capable Belgian miners to do the work of digging out the bones, the gentle Jeanne, who has lived all her life with the dead, the mad priest Colbert, the strange, deranged Ziguette, the wise Heloise, the kindly, level-headed Doctor Guillotine and the sinister Lafosse – each one, so wonderfully drawn, contributes to making this story so absorbing and so real.

This was the first book I’ve read by Andrew Miller but I’ll certainly be reading more in the future.

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