Today’s review is a bit of a throwback, especially given that Hilary Mantel recently published the last book in her historical Cromwell series, The MIrror and The Light. However, that book had rather mixed reviews, so to get my Mantel fix I reached for something else on my shelf, A Place of Greater Safety, published in 1992.
I have always been fascinated by the French Revolution, but there are far fewer novels set in that time period than in the Tudor era, which seems to have a new title out every week. A Place of Greater Safety is one of the better known novels of the French Revolution, and it was both satisfying and frustrating, and for the same reason: it was pure, classic Mantel.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the lives of the three men who were instrumental to effectively ending the French monarchy and the 800-year-rule of the Capet dynasty in that country. Over more than 700 pages, A Place of Greater Safety follows Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre from their earliest childhoods; education and formative years in Paris; careers as lawyers, and, finally, the revolution whose descent into chaos and tyranny also became their own undoing.
Firstly for the good stuff: I don’t think there is a historical fiction author alive who does more research, including the most minute details that most others wouldn’t bother with. Mantel places us inside the houses her characters inhabit, describing their layout and favorite furniture. We are frequently inside their heads as they observe, plan, and feel, their words – spoken, written, or thought – taken from the copious letters they wrote and official documents they left behind. It humanizes and softens the characters that history has seen as villains, giving a different perspective on the turbulent last years of the 18th century in France.
On the other hand, as in all of Mantel’s long-form work, the amount of detail can, at times, feel superfluous, confusing, and boring. Several times I found myself impatient: I knew an interesting bit was coming – the fall of Bastille, the September massacres, the executions of the royal couple – but had to read through endless verbal sparrings among the three amigos or any number of the more minor characters that populate the novel. This style of storytelling necessitates an omniscient narrator who moves from the head of one character to another, which can be confusing with such a wide cast, and which Mantel further compounds by switching between present and past tenses as well as the 1st and 3rd person narratives. It has an experimental feel that I’m not sure works well in a novel of this length and complexity.
Overall, A Place of Greater Safety is reasonably entertaining and highly informative, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It is best enjoyed by true history buffs who are not afraid of wading through hundreds of pages of dense and stylistically challenging prose to experience the exhilaration and the terror that gripped France from 1789 to 1799.
If you enjoy historical fiction based on real-life characters, check out my novel The Greenest Branch, a Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces. It’s also FREE on Kindle Unlimited.