I like Hilary Mantel; I thoroughly enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and when I discovered this book of hers was set in the French Revolution I decided it was probably worth it. After all, the French Revolution is the setting for some of my favourites: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Orczy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel and of course Hugo’s Les Miserables. \
But sadly, I was wrong.
Mantel is a skilful writer and writes books that thoroughly inhabit history; fleshing out famous figures to be believable, rounded characters who carry the plots of the books with them. They focus on the individual rather than the story.
This really works in the Cromwell books; but in A Place of Greater Safety it left the narrative feeling too small. Mantel focusses mainly on three main characters of the revolution; Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximillien Robespierre; and follows their actions, relationships and plots. Which was interesting; but claustrophobic. One learnt of the big picture but it hardly seemed real in the context of the characters we followed.
This is probably also because I know a lot more of Cromwell’s story and context than of the French Revolution; but the other novels I mentioned managed to convey a wider context that I understood, whereas the setting here didn’t quite emerge despite the fact that apparently much of it is excerpts from writings from the people themselves. The common people; referred to often, were a theme rather than a reality. It left me feeling uninformed and in the dark; which (selfishly) isn’t how I like books to make me feel.
The book was also narrated in a wide variety of styles; from reported debates to newspaper clippings to inner monologue to third person narration to personal diaries. This added to a general confusion prompted by a wide cast of characters (I gave up referring to the lengthy character guide and decided it couldn’t matter overmuch who was who) and long chapters.
This perhaps echoed the confusion and effusion of the revolution; but as a reader I would have preferred some better selection. It is extremely rare that I seriously consider giving up a book, but halfway through this one I was sorely tempted. I’m not even sure how glad I am that I persevered.
There did not seem to be a particular change of tone or tension at any point; despite the rising tension of circumstance in the plot. There was nothing really except the prospect of finishing that drove me to keep turning the pages towards the inevitable ending.
As a history and exploration of the three characters and their part in the revolution which I am now certainly more informed about it is commendable; but I am sad to report that as a novel I found it boring and overlong. There was too much of the wrong information and too little of the right. In general; I think it could have done with a good edit.
Next: on to Robert Galbraith (it seems ridiculous to continue with the pen name, JK) and The Silkworm. I’m hoping it all be more worth my while.