Hilary Mantel’s A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY
“A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.”
As with her Booker Prize winning books Mantel magically brings history back to life. Halfway through the book I had to look up who won the Booker Prize in 1992 because I had no doubt that this book was deserving of a swag of prizes too. (THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje and SACRED HUNGER by Barry Unsworth shared the Booker in 1992).
“it’s not the deaths I can’t stand. It’s the judgements, the judgements in the courtroom”
I have never studied nor read anything about the French Revolution. I think the only time I did it at school was at primary school when we covered the storming of The Bastille. I thought that was all there was to the Revolution plus The Guillotine, Marie Antoinette and something about bread and cake. Mantel shows how ignorant I was.
“There must be bread, for where there is no more bread there is no more law, no more freedom and no more republic”
There are no heroes of the revolution in this story, just opportunists and they grab every opportunity: power, money, sex, revenge and violence. Revolutions don’t happen overnight and Mantel recreates the events and atmosphere that lead up to the destruction of the Bastille and then the exhausting process of removing a monarchy and establishing a republic which took more than 5 years and only lasted another 5. Mantel weaves together fact and fiction interspersing the story with actual writings from the main characters, the economics of the time (in particular the price of bread) as well as the political manoeuvrings of other nations.
We follow Robespierre, Danton and Camille from childhood in provincial France to their days as lawyers in Paris and finally key players in The Revolution. They are each nasty and self-serving in their own unique way but at the same time charming and engaging. Their reputations, wealth and power rose and fell with the fortunes of the revolution while their ruthlessness and vindictiveness remained until the bitter yet sad end.
History is always more complicated, complex and delicately intricate that history textbooks can ever show us. As she did with WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES Mantel demonstrates that quality historical fiction has just as an important place in helping us understand the past as does a scholarly text.
ISBN: 9780007250554 ISBN-10: 000725055X Classification: Historical fiction Format: Paperback (197mm x 130mm x mm) Pages: 880 Imprint: Fourth Estate Ltd Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publish Date: 5-Mar-2007 Country of Publication: United Kingdom