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Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an engineer of modest origin, arrives in the city in 1785, charged by the King’s minister with emptying the overflowing cemetery of Les Innocents, a ancient site whose stench is poisoning the neighborhood’s air and water and leaving a vile taste in its inhabitants’ food. At first the ambitious Baratte sees his work as a chance to clear the burden of history, a fitting task for a modern man of reason. But before long he begins to suspect that the destruction of the cemetery might be a prelude to both his own demise and that of the monarchy. Baratte expects the task to be unpleasant but cannot foresee the dramas and calamities it will trigger, or the incident that will transform his life. As unrest against the court of Louis XVI mounts, the engineer realizes that the future he had planned may no longer be the one he wants. His assignment becomes a year of relentless work, exhuming of mummified corpses and listening to the chants of priests, a year of assault and sudden death. A year of friendship, too, and of desire and love. A year unlike any other he has lived.

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    Currently living in Paris and occasionally walking through the Place des Innocents, I was intrigued when I first heard about this book. From the very first page, I knew I was in for an intensely engaging story. What is most remarkable about this novel, for me, is Miller's masterful use of language to evoke a mood: "He does not light a candle—he sits on the bed on the cool almost-dark as though wrapped in the purple heart of a flower." Poetry! If you're interested in the history of France just before the deluge, read this. You will be transported.


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