I heard about this book a few months ago. Somewhere in one of the many e-letters I receive about books, this one was reviewed. It sounded so interesting that I added it to my wish list. Then a bit later I took it off the list as it seemed like it was going to be an obscure book and maybe not all that great after-all, but then it kept cropping up again so-o-o-o I added it back to the list and finally it came out in paperback and my local library had it listed as "On Order." To shorten up this long story, I just finished it.
I have not read anything else by Andrew Miller, nor had I heard of him before this. But he is not new and won the James Tate Memorial Prize for Fiction for his first novel, Ingenious Pain. And his novel Oxygen was a finalist for both the Whitbread Award and the Booker Prize in 2001. Pretty impressive, which makes me ashamed I had not heard of him.
In this novel, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is hired, ostensibly by the king of France, the doomed Louis XVI, to clean out the cemetery of Les Innocents and bring down the church as well. Jean-Baptiste is an engineer more used to building than dismantling and the overwhelming stench of the cemetery that has taken over the neighborhood makes the work even more unpleasant. Between the sexton and his granddaughter Jeanne, Jean-Baptiste learns the history of Les Innocents and decides where to begin digging. As with any award winning book (this one won the Costa Best Novel Award for 2011) there are layers of meaning just as there are layers of dead to be excavated. The workers who are brought in to do the digging as well as the friends Jean makes populate the story and make one wonder if what they are doing is ironically a purging of the land before the greater purge of the Revolution. The people of the city simmer along in the background of the story biding their time. It seems not haphazard that Jean's time at Les Innocents ends with a conflagration.
It is an added boon that the book is one of those solid, lovely Europa editions that reminds a reader of all the qualities e-books lack.