What a read. Seriously, what a read! Written by double-Man Booker winner Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety is a titanic, mammoth of a novel. It’s not so much a book that you read as much as live through.
The story focuses on the lives of Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and George-Jacques Danton; three of the primary architects of the French Revolution. Set over 900 pages, Mantel takes the reader on a journey to discover how three misfit boys grew to be some of the most powerful men in eighteenth century France and then fell from grace. The tale closes as Danton and Demoulins, overthrown by their former friends, are taken to the guillotine.
Just to be clear that though this is a spectacular novel, it is not one that could be classed as an easy read. You absolutely need to have full concentration if you’re going to take it in! The structure is in constant motion – it moves from standard prose, to pure dialogue sections, to excerpts from letters, newspapers and pamphlets.
The cast of supporting characters is also massive! In addition to the ‘main three’, the books features many of the famous faces of the era: Louis Antoine Saint-Just, Fabre d’Eglantine, Philippe Egalité, Lucille Desmoulins, Manon Roland, Marat, Hebert and more.
My god, this books is amazing; so much so that I’m struggling to articulate just how much. Hilary Mantel excels with bringing life and depth to controversial historical figures (see the amazing Wolf Hall) and this is no exception. She brings such real emotional depth to the characters; fleshing them out and portraying them as real human figures, not the inveterate bogeymen of the Revolution that they have since become, Robespierre in particular. Tying the plot to the very real friendships between these men makes for a poignant contrast to the brutal political situation in which they wound up coming to the fore. They were absolutely shaped by each other.
It’s a real emotional rollercoaster that has touching moments of hope and fervency and yet simultaneously emphasises the sheer brutality and savagery of the time; the changeability of the mob and the kill-or-be-killed political environment. I found that my feelings towards the characters shifted very much throughout the book. I initially liked the loud, bluff, ambitious Danton but had gone off him by the end of the story. Conversely, I couldn’t stand the caustic, provocative Demouslins in the early parts of the novel but I really felt for him by the end. I still can’t make up my mind about Robespierre – at times I really got the sense that he was a genuine ideologue who wanted to achieve his vision of equality for all, but by the end we began to see flashes of the ruthless demagogue.
“What does the crowd want? To roar. Its wider objectives? No coherent answer. Ask it: it roars. Who are these people? No names. The crowd just wants to grow, to embrace, to weld together, to gather in, to melt, to bay from one throat. If he were not standing here he would be dying anyway, dying between the pages of his letters. If he survives this – death as a reprieve – he will have to write it down, the life that feeds the writing that feeds the life to come, and already he fears that he cannot describe the head, the green leaves of the chestnut trees, the choking dust and the smell of blood and the blithe savagery of his auditors; it will be a voyage into hyperbole, an odyssey of bad taste.”
Interestingly, there is a school of thought that Robespierre suffered a full on nervous breakdown once he came to power and that this explained the massive switch in his early behaviour (he was a fierce opponent of the death penalty, wanted slavery abolished etc) to his role in the terror. Mantel does hint a little at this being the case and links it to his sudden obsessive paranoia with conspiracies.
“Life’s going to change. You thought it already had? Not nearly as much as it’s going to change now.
Everything you disapprove of you’ll call “aristocratic.” This term can be applied to food, to books and plays, to modes of speech, to hairstyles and to such venerable institutions as prostitution and the Roman Catholic Church.
If “Liberty” was the watchword of the first Revolution, “Equality” is that of the second. “Fraternity” is a less assertive quality, and must creep in where it may.”
It is so, so exquisitely written and has some truly spectacular passages, showcasing exactly why Hilary Mantel has two Man Booker Prizes to her name. Even after almost eight hundred words, I fear I am not doing justice to just how wonderful it is! It’s no small feat to take the reader on a journey through one of the bloodiest times in history and yet manage to inject humour and pathos into the plot, but my goodness she manages it with aplomb!
“Can we offer you an escort, Citizen Deputy, to a place of greater safety?”
“The grave,” Camille replies. “The grave.”
It’s an absolute resounding 5/5 and going on my ‘Top Shelf’. I can’t recommend it highly enough.