“A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”
The end of the year is my usual window to get some backlist reading done. With all the accolades Hilary Mantel has received for WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES (deservedly so) I decided to pick up her book about the French Revolution. So many customers had told me they thought it as her best book plus when I tried to get my wife to read WOLF HALL she read it instead and also raved about it. And everyone was right.
As with her Booker Prize winning books Mantel magically brings history back to life. Halfway through the book I had to look up who won the Booker Prize in 1992 because I had no doubt that this book was deserving of a swag of prizes too. (THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje and SACRED HUNGER by Barry Unsworth shared the Booker in 1992).
Mantel breathes life into history like no other writer I have read. It is not just recreating believable characters and establishing the time and place, which she does do very well, but it is also tone. With Cromwell she captured his cynicism, his dry, callous wit but also his fears and doubts. You could hear him talking to you. Mantel does the same thing in A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, this time with three protagonists: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Through these three people she personifies the French Revolution. The novel is infused with an almost snide but very laissez-faire tone and an almost unbridled terror that simmers below the surface that permeates through each character as well as the historical events and scenes Mantel recreates.
“it’s not the deaths I can’t stand. It’s the judgements, the judgements in the courtroom”
I have never studied nor read anything about the French Revolution. I think the only time I did it at school was at primary school when we covered the storming of The Bastille. I thought that was all there was to the Revolution plus The Guillotine, Marie Antoinette and something about bread and cake. Mantel shows how ignorant I was.
“There must be bread, for where there is no more bread there is no more law, no more freedom and no more republic”
There are no heroes of the revolution in this story, just opportunists and they grab every opportunity: power, money, sex, revenge and violence. Revolutions don’t happen overnight and Mantel recreates the events and atmosphere that lead up to the destruction of the Bastille and then the exhausting process of removing a monarchy and establishing a republic which took more than 5 years and only lasted another 5. Mantel weaves together fact and fiction interspersing the story with actual writings from the main characters, the economics of the time (in particular the price of bread) as well as the political manoeuvrings of other nations.
We follow Robespierre, Danton and Camille from childhood in provincial France to their days as lawyers in Paris and finally key players in The Revolution. They are each nasty and self-serving in their own unique way but at the same time charming and engaging. Their reputations, wealth and power rose and fell with the fortunes of the revolution while their ruthlessness and vindictiveness remained until the bitter yet sad end.
History is always more complicated, complex and delicately intricate that history textbooks can ever show us. As she did with WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES Mantel demonstrates that quality historical fiction has just as an important place in helping us understand the past as does a scholarly text.
Classification: Historical fiction
Format: Paperback (197mm x 130mm x mm)
Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 5-Mar-2007
Country of Publication: United Kingdom