It was only in eighteenth-century France that, at last, the dead began to stay dead. For thousands of years, death was considered merely to be the final qualification for life everlasting. But a cadre of philosophes, eloquent if few in number, argued that matter maketh man – and matter alone. The idea that he was animated by an immortal soul was attacked in works such as La Mettrie's Man a Machine, Diderot's D'Alembert's Dream and D'Holbach's System of Nature. In Andrew Miller's superb new novel, set in Paris a few years before the Revolution, the dead weigh heavily on the minds of the living, despite all the disenchantments of science and philosophy.
Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer with an influential patron, is ordered to raze the cemetery of Les Innocents in the centre of Paris. It has been closed and its church abandoned for five years, but the concentration of putrefying remains is said to endanger the health of the