When this book came out three years ago, it got a lot of attention, it won some prizes, it garnered excellent reviews and word of mouth. I put it straight on my to read list, as I love a bit of a historical novel and this one sounded kind of gruesome with it, which is always a winner. Yet somehow I only just got round to reading it now. I don’t know why. It was only after I started reading that I discovered it’s the same author who wrote Ingenious Pain, a book I couldn’t get past the first chapter of, no matter how many times I tried.
So here we are. Our hero is Jean-Baptiste Barratte, the year is 1785 and the setting is Paris. Barratte is tasked with clearing the cemetery of Les Innocents, which is overflowing and poisoning the air of the surrounding neighbourhood. What should have been an epic but not insurmountable task turns into a year of unexpected events, both tender and violent, until it begins to look like he may not actually make it out of there alive.
Miller paints a vivid picture, that’s for sure. His writing is a joy to read, it’s witty, it’s florid, it’s lyrical, it’s a treat. But somehow, I found I wasn’t engaging with any of it. I didn’t really buy into any of the events that happen to and around our noble hero, they all seemed to be lacking in motive. And the action surrounding the crazy events is, well, kind of repetitive. They dig up a section of the cemetery, they dispose of the contents. And repeat. Add the two together and it made for an odd and disconnected read. I simultaneously marvelled at the language and didn’t give two shits about the words, you know?
So when I finished the book, I just shrugged and thought “well that was alright”. If Miller had done a Spinal Tap and turned it all the way up to eleven, he might have won me over. But the grand finale doesn’t really do that, it smacks more of a “I need a way to end this”. So the sinking feeling I had when I discovered some of his back catalogue turned out to be not too far off the mark. This was better than I thought it would be after that discovery, but still not as good as I wanted it to be.