Sunday, December 6, 2015

Book Review - "A Place of Greater Safety" by Hilary Mantel

I was reading this epic novel non-stop for the last seven days and, with a sigh of relief, I finally reached the end yesterday. While mulling on how to write this review, an immediate thought that came to mind was that the novel could’ve been tightened and slimmed down by a fifth to a quarter. I’m giving it a rating of 4.2 stars out of 5.

On the whole, it is a rigorously researched work of historical fiction describing in minute details the emotional, sexual and political lives of the three leading actors who played pivotal roles in the French Revolution (Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges-Jacques Danton) and who were surrounded by a myriad cast of secondary characters; and the entangled and mind-boggling relations and interactions, sexual or political or otherwise, between the one and the other.

In terms of crafting a spell-binding historical novel, Ms. Mantel is a talented storyteller who knows how to titillate her readers. I was particularly impressed with the last third of the book, where the irony of bad-outcome-from-good-intentions helps to build up hair-raising tension. Having said that, I still came away with a tinge of disappointment that the author chose to bypass the chance to examine some salient issues from the viewpoint of ordinary French folks (for example, the underlying reasons as to why they thought there was no better alternative than to resort to bloody violence; how the epochal ideological shift affected the average Parisian on the streets and what his/her reactions to that shift were).

Set in one of the bloodiest and most tumultuous periods in French history, the novel no doubt gives a kaleidoscopic view of important historic events and personages. But the fictional elements of the novel tend to dwell interminably on Danton’s sexual and material voracity, Desmoulins’ bisexual perverseness and Robespierre’s frenzied self-abnegation. Couldn’t they have been simply hot-headed, starry-eyed young idealists who started out thinking it was their ineluctable duty to reform a rotten system in their beloved country, but ended up being sucked into the vortex of power addiction, which ultimately destroyed lives unnecessarily, including their own? If Robespierre’s ascetic traits were still credible, the salacity attributed to Danton and Desmoulins just seems to me to be a bit forced.  

All in all, this made for good complementary reading alongside Thomas Carlyle’s non-fiction title The French Revolution: A History, which I commenced reading before starting on Mantel’s novel. With these two books, I’m learning a lot about this cataclysmic phase in French history.

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