Jean-Baptiste Baratte is an educated and enthusiastic engineer from Belleme in Normandy, who is given teh job of dismantling and disposing of the remains of the les Innocents church and cemetery, in Paris. He initially thinks it should be a routine, if somewhat unpleasant job, but it soon becomes clear that there is a lot more to the matter than he first thinks. Some of the locals who live near to the church are opposed to the destruction of the property – one in particular shows her feelings in an extreme fashion – and he realises that to find workers willing to assist in the project, he will have to call on outside help. The book tells Jean-Baptiste’s story of the year it took to clear the remains of the cemetery and the church, a year that involves, love, rape, suicide…
There are certain parts of this book which I loved. It won the 2011 Costa Book of the Year Award, and I can see why. Based on real events, the writing is gorgeous and evocative, occasionally beautiful. The destruction of a cemetery did not really sound as though it would make for an interesting story, but it does work, possibly because the book is also about how the job affected Jean-Baptiste and those around him. I really felt as though Andrew Miller captured the atmosphere of the place and brought it to life.
However, while I felt the scene was set beautifully, I found that it was hard to relate to or invest in any of the characters, including Jean-Baptiste himself, who I felt ambivalent about. That said however, the female characters in the book – the mysterious Heloise, the sweet Jeanne and the no-nonsense Lisa, were far more sympathetic, and a lot more likeable than most of the males. Overall though, I found myself reading the book with a sense of detachment – it never felt like a story I could lose myself in, although the writing is undeniably eloquent, and the story itself is pacey enough never to become boring.
I would recommend the book to fans of historical fiction, and would probably read more by this author.