Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Andrew Miller, 2011
(June 2012)

This is the best book about digging up a graveyard I have ever read.

More than that though, this is just an excellent book. Almost subliminally so.

You know I like the style of language. I wouldn’t claim to be a great stylist myself, but I can recognize the good and bad stuff when I read it. Now, highly stylized writing isn’t bad per se, but it does tend to be badly done more often than more neutral stuff.

The writing here is so neutral it’s transparent. Simple; descriptive; a wash of blank translucency where someone else might be splashing primary colours all over the page. Or at least that’s how it feels to start with, but after a few chapters your eye adjusts and you realize that there’s a whole kaleidoscope of shade dancing just beneath the surface.

This book threatens to contain all the petty introspection I’ve previously railed against in Literary Fiction, yet it doesn’t. There should be absolutely nothing interesting about exhuming bones in pre-revolutionary Paris, yet it pulls you along in such a gentle fashion that you barely realize it’s happening. It’s inexorable. You start reading and one thing sort of happens, then another, and another, and all are described with such a delicacy of touch that it’s only when you put it down that you realize just what a bravura performance the whole thing was.

I normally enjoy this sort of book on a completely different level. Maybe that’s why I’m so taken with this one. I wasn’t expecting anything like this. It’s phenomenal.


  1. Capturing the past… or something like that. Apparently Mr. Miller has done well in pleasing the critics. Writing an historical novel that turns people on despite delving into a vastly morbid subject is pretty cool.

    You say you were impressed. The Guardian blog was impressed. Ron Charles was impressed. I have a feeling I'm not impressed simply because I haven't read the book yet.

    Your blog post triggered a recollection of someone who would most likely be impressed if he weren't dead. And not just because he was an Englishmen or an historian. Or the fact that he had somewhat of a French fetish going on. No, no, no… it gets much better.

    A man with a second identity wrote a collection of essays dealing specifically with French history. One of his essays, so impressively well-written, dealt with history in a way that a mortician deals with cadavers.

    "Indeed, I believe that such a sense of involvement is not only inevitable but even necessary, for the historian is not a cold clinician, he is not dealing with such steely concepts a la Saint-Just nor with geological ‘social structures’, he is concerned primarily with human beings.”

    And for the last quote, which happens to be the second to last paragraph from the essay, 'Experiences of an Anglo-French Historian':

    “The historian should, above all, be endlessly inquisitive and prying, constantly attempting to force the privacy of others, and to cross the frontiers of class, nationality, generation, period, and sex. His principal aim is to make the dead alive. And, like the American ‘mortician’, he may allow himself a few artifices of the trade: a touch of rouge here, a pencil-stroke there, a little cotton wool in the cheeks, to make the operation more convincing. Of course, complete understanding is impossible and the historian of the common people, of popular movements, and of individualistic eccentrics can only scratch at the surface of things. He may recapture a mentality; but he cannot probe deeply. He can only make one man witness for many by the selective use of the individual ‘case history’ as a unit in historical impressionism.”

    Yeah, for some reason, that part of the passage worked itself up from beneath a layer of mental soil where memories had been laid to rest. And it just grabbed me by the foot.

    Now, just in case you are wondering what this is all about… um… well. You did mention that you were doing a bit of excavation, moving things around a bit, in hopes of creating a more serene environment in your back yard. You had also mentioned the noise that bothers you when a certain neighbor plays with one of his beloved toys. However, you did not mention, if memory serves correct, how deep you were going with that hole. Breadbox deep is probably okay. Anything more spacious might be a little too inviting for the kind of stuff graduates of Oxford (such as Richard Cobb) seem to have a talent for writing about.

    Bet that lawn looks real nice.


    1. Lawn is looking just grand, thanks for asking. Rainy season is doing wonders for it.

      I hadn't come anywhere near making the digging connection there. The hole wasn't that deep, all considering. Just enough to let me smooth out some bumps in other places. It's also been blissfully quiet as of late...

  2. "I wasn’t expecting anything like this. It’s phenomenal"

    THAT would be a nice review to put on the back cover :)

    1. And one day, when I'm rich and famous, they might actually do so. As long as they pay me, of course ;)

  3. Maybe your most tantalizing book review yet.

    Where do you find time to read so much?...

    1. As I mentioned a week or so back, I'm not sure I really do read all that much, compared to some people at least.

      I read fairly quickly though. Let's say a page a minute. So your standard 300 page novel is going to take 5 hours, give or take. Half an hour in the evening here, half an hour on the train there and before you know it you're getting through 4 or 5 a month.