Back to eighteenth century France for the setting of this novel, which concerns the clearing of the graveyard at the church of Les Innocents, currently the site of the shopping centre of Les Halles. The young architect responsible for the demolition has a vision of a new future: he is an acolyte of Voltaire, and dreams of utopias. The destruction of the cemetery brings him into contact with a series of forces opposed to change; the gossips, the conservative locals who would rather their breath reeked of the graves he wishes to remove; the miners brought in to carry out the work – their ritual and superstition.
Young revolutionaries paint the walls of Paris with slogans whilst the work of removing the detritus of the past is secretly carried out. We see the miners in Valenciennes, in scenes reminiscent of Emile Zola’s Germinal and the street life of pre-revolutionary Paris.
A tongue tied young lover, the hero reaches out, makes a revolutionary choice, and defies the religion of his mother. Meanwhile the functionary who commissioned him remains faceless and unconcerned. The palace is an empty shell. The lemon trees are gone.
There are no answers in this novel, but it subtly raises questions and explores characters in ways that continually surprise.