Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

From the Back Cover:

It is 1789 and three young provincials have come to Paris to make their way. Georges-Jacques Danton, an ambitious young lawyer, is energetic, pragmatic, debt-ridden-and hugely but erotically ugly. Maximilien Robespierre, also a lawyer, is slight, diligent, and terrified of violence. His dearest friend, Camille Desmoulins, is a conspirator and pamphleteer of genius. A charming gadfly, erratic and untrustworthy, bisexual and beautiful, Camille is obsessed with one woman and engaged to marry another, her daughter. In the swells of revolution, they each taste the addictive delights of power and the price that must be paid for it.

My Thoughts:

Ms. Mantel has been in the press quite a bit this past year thanks to the critical success of her latest, Wolf Hall: A Novel. Almost every review I've read mentions the unusual writing style she uses, so when I received this book as a gift, I was curious. Her style is different, though not difficult as I had feared. She jumps around to different tenses and points of view; from omniscient to third to first, some scenes are in the present tense, some feature a character addressing the reader, some are written as screenplay with stage sounds like a big mess, but oddly enough, it works in this context and seems to enhance rather than detract from the story. To me, the style seemed to mirror and reinforce the frenetic, tumultuous and paranoid culture that was the French Revolution.

The story focuses on three of the most recognizable and controversial participants of the Revolution, beginning with childhood and following each of them through education and early careers to the point where they come together to help shape the beginnings of the Revolution.

It took me a week to get around to writing my review for this novel because I needed some time to digest it and decide how I wanted to rate it. There's no question this is an extremely well-written book, meticulously researched and peppered with excerpts from newspapers, diaries and letters; full of zippy, witty dialogue and poetic narrative. The scope of the book is huge but the author does a great job of bringing it into focus. It was a slow read for me because it is a dense book, each page packed with words and each word not to be missed for fear of misunderstanding, but I really enjoyed it, though I was rather depressed afterward. It left me feeling a bit resentful toward the population of France during the Revolution, and with a sense of mourning for humanity's loss. It's not the type of book I could read over and over again.

The French Revolution was far different from its American counterpart. The French people were not united against one common foe, but divided into violent factions, each opposing a different foe and always opposing each other. Add to that the fact that the rest of the European powers decided it was a great time to take advantage of a weakened France and invade, and you've got a recipe for a time of terror and confusion, where virtually the entire ruling class was executed along with many of the brightest and most capable minds of the time, and where there was, in fact, no place of greater safety.

My Rating:  4.5 out of 5 Stars

*Note, since writing this review I tried to read Wolf Hall, but I couldn't finish it, and I have to say I don't get what all the hype is about. I was bored stiff. A Place of Greater Safety is far better, in my humble opinion.


  1. Hilary Mantel is so good - I loved Wolf Hall.
    Great review - I'll definitely read this.

  2. I'm really looking forward to Wolf Hall, but it will probably be mid-year before it's my turn to have it from the library! I may have to break down and buy it! Thanks for following me!

  3. This sounds great! Thanks for your review ( I really appreciate that you emailed me)- I'll update your status:)

  4. Great review-I have yet to read one of her books and might well consider this one now before I jump into Wolf Hall


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