And here I will review a novel about the French Revolution to end all novels about the French Revolution. I’ve talked about Hilary Mantel’s celebrated Wolf Hall; this is an earlier novel of hers, a grander and a more sweeping one. And a longer one. Oh, so much longer…
Let’s start with the official blurb:
‘Georges-Jacques Danton: zealous, energetic and debt-ridden. Maximilien Robespierre: small, diligent and terrified of violence. And Camille Desmoulins: a genius of rhetoric, charming and handsome, yet also erratic and untrustworthy. As these young men, key figures of the French Revolution, taste the addictive delights of power, the darker side of the period’s political ideals is unleashed – and all must face the horror that follows’.
A Place of Greater Safety paints a meticulous picture of these legendary leaders’ rise and fall, from their provincial childhoods to their trip to the scaffold (I hope this is not going to be a spoiler to anyone?). My feelings towards the novel are rather complex: on one hand, it’s undoubtedly brilliant. On the other hand, unlike Wolf Hall, it’s not a novel you would set out to re-read. The more famous Cromwell trilogy is better-paced, and also benefits from a tighter viewpoint. Actually, normally I enjoy multiple POVs (like in Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic novels, for instance), but here they seemed to swell and blur the narrative a bit.
Okay, now onto the good things. The book is immensely subtle, erudite, complex – and, oh boy, it’s so dark. If in Wolf Hall Thomas More’s execution is a painful, swelling conclusion, a singular tragedy, A Place of Greater Safety depicts a world where executions of political enemies (or people suspected of sympathizing with those) became a routine industrial process. The darkness isn’t only expressed in actual deaths; it seems to be poured in the air – the fevered, poisonous air of what came after the Revolution.
Here, Mantel’s talent to make even the bloodiest characters in history sympathetic and human really shines through. Whatever they did, or allowed to be done, it’s hard not feel crushed as the gregarious, sensuous, unbeatable Danton is transported to his death, beaten at last. It’s hard not to sympathize with the fickle, fey Camille Desmoulins, as he is bending over backwards to win his old father’s approval.
Finally, the usually-forgotten women of the French Revolution are drawn as carefully as their male counterparts. There is Gabrielle Danton, a resilient housewife, and Lucille Desmoulins, a firebrand who doesn’t wear much in the way of an underwear when celebrating the fall of the Bastille. There is Anne Theroigne, an actress/courtesan turned revolutionary fighter, and Manon Roland, a cold intellectual who is the real power behind her husband the Minister’s throne.
Oh. But, in context, the titular ‘place of greater safety’ means grave.
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