(It’s July! Been reading like crazy, but I never seem to be able to sit down and actually write a review.)
I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the sequel Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoy her spare writing, how she can convey so much in only a few words.
Eager to read more from her, I picked up A Place of Greater Safety. I had no idea what I was getting into. Make no mistake, this is a good book. But it’s not an easy read by any means. It is the story of the French Revolution, as experienced by Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Young lawyers from the the provinces, they come to Paris to earn their fortunes. (As a side note: It’s been a LONG time since high school, and am embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember hearing the name Desmoulins before reading this book, although I was familiar with Robespierre and Danton.) Robespierre is slight, rigid, distant. Danton is his opposite – huge, overbearing, loud, sexually voracious. And ugly. That point is made often. Desmoulins is flighty, charming, pretty, a genius, and is a friend to them both. All are ambitious. They talk, scheme, conspire, cheat on their wives, argue and scheme some more.
They are exhausting.
We tend to like our Revolutionary heroes, well, HEROIC. We expect them to be self- sacrificing, uncomplicated, high minded patriots, willing to die for freedom. And personally, I like having a protagonist I can get behind. Perhaps that’s simple minded of me, but generally I need to get invested in SOMEONE if I am to stick to a 770 plus page book. And these are difficult men to root for. Truly. These characters – these PEOPLE – are complicated, frequently unsympathetic. There is no doubt that they firmly believe in their revolutionary ideals, but their fervor often takes a back seat to their personal ambition and appetites. The only one for whom this is not the case is Robespierre, and weirdly this only serves to make him even less sympathetic than the more human Danton. Robespierre is cold and hypocritical, condemning bloodshed on one hand while signing the arrest warrants of former friends with the other.
And this is, I think, where Mantel’s brilliance as a writer comes through. Her characters no longer seem like characters, but human beings, with good points and bad. We are forced to except them for who they are, not who we wish they were. Once I made peace with this idea my enjoyment of this book increased. She made me like the villainous Thomas Cromwell before, and she kept me reading here. (Although seriously? Desmoulins and his antics – and Mantel’s obvious love of him as a character – continued to annoy the crap out of me.)
Be warned. This is not beach reading. There is a cast of thousands, although fortunately there is a glossary to keep them straight. While Mantel writes in her notes that this is not meant to be a complete history of the French Revolution, there were instances where I did more research to understand exactly what was going on, and who was who. The petty rivalries! The squabbling factions! I hadn’t thought about the Brissotins or Girondists since…a really long time ago. There is a lot of information to process here. One criticism I do have is that Mantel will suddenly change the point of view, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. It happens throughout the book, and made it difficult to know exactly who was speaking/thinking at the time. Sometimes I had to go back and reread for clarification.
We can never truly get into the mind of a long dead historical figure. Mantel does a masterful job of filling in the blanks and framing the action with actual speeches, diaries and letters. I recommend it. Please read it and let me know what you think!