Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

This review is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - M is for Mantel.
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.


Rowenna said...

Sounds like a fascinating read--so often the French Revolution ends up nearly caricatured, so an in-depth profile of those living and making the history sounds like a great story!

wilma said...

A Place of Greater Safety was challenging but became a real page-turner . As well as feeling I got to know three leaders of the revolution , I was gripped and repelled by the ferocity of the Paris mobs and their manipulators ,and frustrated by the endless speechifying of the assemblies. The slide of the monarchy and nobility into ineffectiveness, and the opportunism of both certain aristocrats and revolutionaries seemed very credible . The portrayal of Louis and Marie Antoinette is biting; Antoinette's trial and death recounted with stark realism - at first the reader is unaware who the woman on trial is. No sentiment here - lots of convincing 'verisimilitude'.

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Princess Nijma