A Place Of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel
The imminent apotheosis of Hilary Mantel means that anyone gearing up to throw rocks at her immediately earns iconoclast status. This is a sprawling leviathan of a book which Mantel started on in 1974 and put away in a drawer before finishing it off and publishing it in 1992. At around 860 pages in length it could have done with the attentions of the dear doctor, Guillotine.
It follows the careers of three of the main protagonists of the French revolution, Camille Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton. The early part of the book, which charts their childhood and their early careers before they were swept up by the maelstrom of the revolutionary spirit, is probably the most tedious and for this reader was an effort to struggle through. The book gets better as it goes along and the final hundred pages or so describing the fragmentation of their friendship with fatal consequences – at least for two of them by the time the book concludes – are riveting. But…
There is a bewildering array of characters who flit on and off stage during the narrative. Mantel, helpfully, has a dramatis personae at the front of the book (or at least in the edition I read) which explains who they are but if you are reading the novel on the modern-day equivalent of an ancient scroll, the e-reader – my wrists are not strong enough to hold such a weighty tome for so long – it is almost impossible to use. At the end of the book, rather like a film, the author tells you what happens to the characters who are still alive.
This device reinforces for me the movie quality of the book. It is episodic and panoramic in its scope. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are much more concentrated in their scope and with just one major character to develop feel more complete and satisfying works. What I found particularly irritating is the way Mantel switches her delivery mode – one minute we have straightforward narrative, then we move into reports from contemporary sources and then dialogue presented as if it were a play. It leaves a very disjointed feeling to the book.
The next problem is that the main characters are not terribly appealing. OK you can admire the strength of their revolutionary fervour but none of them would be chaps you would want to invite home for a meal of have a glass of vin rouge with. Mantel tries to examine their personal side, introducing and exploring their love lives but there is something rather superficial and slick in her treatment of this side of their complex characters. It is almost as if there is a bodice-ripping pot boiler struggling to emerge from a more conventional historical novel. Perhaps this tension betrays the fact that Mantel initially abandoned the project and then resuscitated it.
It is not all doom and gloom – I would have abandoned it long before the end if the book didn’t have enough to carry my interest along. There are passages of humour and pathos which are beautifully told. If I was to sum up the essence of this curate’s egg of a book in one sentence it would be fanaticism without compassion equals destruction – a lesson that is very much du jour.
Not Mantel’s best book by a long chalk, I fear, but it is interesting to compare and contrast it with her later works, particularly in terms of development of the narrative and characterisation. My advice, however, would be to stick with her later block busters.