1 February 2011

5. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

I started reading this book about three weeks ago and finished it, on page 872, on Sunday night and really feel like I've achieved something. It is not an easy read and you need to concentrate on what you're reading to follow the various characters and politics. Having said that, I really enjoyed it and was inspired to find out more about the French Revolution as well.

A Place of Greater Safety is set during the French Revolution and focuses on the lives of three of its main players ; Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. Mantel gives us a brief few chapters on their childhoods but the majority of the book covers their adult lives; the years 1787 to 1784 when Desmoulins and Danton were executed. I cannot comment on how accurate the novel is historically although there haven't been glaring contradictions with the brief research I did online after reading it. Wolf Hall, Mantel's novel about Thomas Cromwell was accurate enough to avoid annoyance re. the Tudors which I studied at university, so I'm willing to assume the same here. No doubt elements has been fleshed out and gaps filled it but that is the necessity of historical fiction.

Mantel really brings the period to life and cleverly explores three men with fascinating characters. None of them are what you could really call likeable; Desmoulins is amoral, Robespierre cold and Danton aggressive. Nonetheless the scenes at the end when Danton and Desmoulins caused a few tears on my part as Mantel ably constructs believable and complex relationships between the three men and their friends and family. The tragedy of the scale of death during the Revolution is brought to you on human terms.  Mantel really brings home how brutal the  Revolution was; that men who were responsible for starting it in the first place were then executed for treason against the republic, mere years later. The fear and desperation of people waiting to be arrested for nothing more than being from an aristocratic family or not showing enough revolutionary vigour is ever present.

Desmoulins in particular is a sympathetically written character for all his flaws and his relationship with his wife, Lucile Duplessis, shouldn't be something you buy into but I couldn't help myself and when they are parted was one of the most emotional moments for me. Their relationship is intense and bizarre provides an unexpected romantic plot for the novel which is chiefly concerned with friendships and political relationships.

Robespierre is a frightening character who is constantly fighting his human instincts to try to become incorruptible for the sake of the revolution who eventually gets tied in knots and exhausts his mind trying to become it.

Similar to Wolf Hall, sometimes I found it difficult to work out who was speaking/who was being spoken about. Unlike Wolf Hall, this didn't seem to be down to a literary device (in Wolf Hall Cromwell is always referred to as 'he') but just not enough clarity or perhaps not allowing for a reader having only a cursory knowledge of the people and politics of revolutionary France. The novel is preceded by eight pages of character lists and I found myself frequently having to refer back to them. Characters often have very similar names, which is hardly Mantel's fault, however perhaps she could have made a bit clearer who was who within the actual novel, not just in the character lists. I found at points that I just gave up on trying to follow who was who and which committee was which, which lessened my enjoyment of it as I wasn't as involved in it.

My only other criticism is that the third quarter of the novel began to drag a little before working up to the climax of Danton and Desmoulins' trial. The novel is huge and I felt as though it could have been condensed slightly to avoid that dip in interest before the end.

The novel is a massive accomplishment on Mantel's part, I've never read anything like it and to be unique is a special thing for a novel. I found it fascinating, engrossing and challenging which is exactly what I want in a novel.

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