Hilary Mantel is probably my favorite historical fiction writer because she leans more heavily on historical facts than fiction. Her books always make me feel as if I’m back in a beloved history class reading stories of the past that enthrall me and make me want to learn more. A Place of Greater Safety was no different albeit it was long, 749 pages long, and at times felt just a bit of a slog.
The French Revolution. I had a vague knowledge of it. Mostly to do with Marie Antoinette and the Terror and sadly mostly through films. In reading Mantel’s interview with The Paris Review, they referenced her novel as one of the best books written on the subject. I immediately ordered it. Then it sat on my shelf waiting for a time when 749 pages would be doable. A very wet and stormy June allowed for that.
The novel starts with the childhoods of George Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins and it follows them through adulthood as the main orchestrators of the revolution and to their deaths at its waning. There are others in the background: their wives, their mistresses, Lafayette, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Jean-Paul Marat, Dr. Guillotine and even Grace Elliott. They add to the story and give depth to the main characters, but none of them play great roles in the telling. It’s the events themselves that are told in exquisite and vivid detail adding to the tension building from every act, every description, every included document, speech or letter, Mantel’s powerful voice leading us with great skill to the terror we know is coming. The writing is alive with it and holds your attention steadfast even through the slow parts. I wanted to be done with the book, but I didn’t want to miss a word of it.
“History is Fiction” – and in the case of A Place of Greater Safety – what dramatic fiction it is!