This novel about the French Revolution and its famous protagonists begins well before the fighting starts - at the birth of its main characters, in fact. This seems, at first, to be a flaw, but as the story draws on this prolonged beginning turns out to be a boon, for by the time the conflict boils over, the reader is deeply enmeshed in Parisian politics and, more importantly, the lives of Mantel's characters. Camille Desmoulins is a brilliant, fragile lay-about and seducer of men and women; Georges-Jacques Danton is a bulldog of a lawyer with passions he is sometimes willing to compromise; Maximilien Robespierre is a sickly, socially timid man whose personal conviction far exceeds his physical frame; Lucile Duplessis is a young girl who develops a crush on Camille, the dashing young man wooing her married mother. Together, they are caught in, and make, the political storm that overtakes their country.
I picked this book up at the bookstore after a long period of anxious browsing. I wanted a book written by a woman, but not one about sisters or mothers or long-lost-loves; in other words, not just about relationships and inner lives, but about action and history and stories. Finally, I found this. I'd never heard of Mantel before reading this book, but A Place of Greater Safety has assured her a pedestal of honor in my heart. This book was everything I'd hoped when I bought it, and more.
Mantel's special skill is combining the details of history with the flesh-and-blood characters that she creates, often sketching them right over the outlines of historical people. Even though we may know the fates of Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, Mantel has a lot to teach us about their lives, loves and passions. As she does so, she sweeps us into the tumult of 18th century France, and I can't imagine finishing this book without a deep respect and affection for the people who inhabited that world. As with Wolf Hall, Mantel is a bit self-indulgent (though less so than in the later work): not attibuting dialogue, shifting perspectives and verb tenses. But she's so damn brilliant, she gets away with it.