I don't really get this kind of fiction, something which purports to tell a story but trowels on so many layers of meaning and metaphor and symbolism that the characters never have the chance to breathe. Take the title, for instance. Deeply ironic, given that the plot revolves around the destruction of a Parisian graveyard in 1785, so contaminated that it affects even the food that those living around it consume. There is the purity of the sexton's young daughter, contrasted with the local prostitute, who yet displays a certain purity in her nature. Then there's the elephant in the room (or in Versailles, in this case), the impurity of the royal regime which the reader knows will be swept away in a purifying, if horrifying, cleansing in a few years' time, an event which is unknown to the characters and unacknowledged by the author, beyond a few mentions of riots, graffiti and the elephant. And a certain M. Guillotine.
Beneath all these suffocating layers of meaning is a lightweight little story that never really bears much scrutiny. None of the characters really come to life, and I certainly didn't care about any of them. Motives are never clear. Things happen, but it's not obvious why. The main character, the engineer Baratte, ambles through the pages without ever coming alive. I never understood him. After being bopped on the head by the irate daughter of the house he lodges in, he starts to make changes in his life without any apparent thought for the consequences. His relationship with Heloise, for instance, is bizarre for the sort of career-minded, serious person he’s been until that point. I get that he had been faced with his own mortality and decided to do what he wanted with his life, but still - it’s an odd choice. I’d have loved to take him on one side and ask him - just where do you see this going, Jean-Baptiste? Then there was Jeanne, who suffered appallingly but, you know, it’s fine because she’ll get over it. So that’s all right then. Not sure whether this was meant to be some kind of social commentary on the prevailing attitudes in the eighteenth century, but it typified the book - a dramatic event passed over with little depth, perhaps with little interest from the author, who moves past Jeanne to focus once again on Baratte. Who isn’t even interesting.
On the plus side, the book is beautifully and evocatively written, recreating certain aspects of Parisian life to perfection. A little more attention to the characters and a little less to smothering the entire plot in metaphor, and this would have been a wonderful read. As it is, it’s utterly meh. Three grudging stars.