It is 1789, and three young provincials have come to Paris to make their way. Georges-Jacques Danton, an ambitious young lawyer, is energetic, pragmatic, debt-ridden--and hugely but erotically ugly. Maximilien Robespierre, also a lawyer, is slight, diligent, and terrified of violence. His dearest friend, Camille Desmoulins, is a conspirator and pamphleteer of genius. A charming gadfly, erratic and untrustworthy, bisexual and beautiful, Camille is obsessed by one woman and engaged to marry another, her daughter. In the swells of revolution, they each taste the addictive delights of power, and the price that must be paid for it.
As 19th-century novelists Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens both discovered, the French Revolution makes for great drama. This lesson has not been lost on Hilary Mantel, whose A Place of Greater Safety
brings a 20th-century sensibility to the stirring events of 1789. Mantel's approach is nothing if not ambitious: her three main characters, Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins, happen to have been major players in the early days of the revolution--men whose mix of ambition, idealism, and ego helped unleash the Terror and brought them eventually to their own tragic ends. As Mantel points out in her forward, none of these men was famous before the revolution; thus not a great deal is known about their early lives. What would constrain the biographer, however, is an open invitation to the fiction writer to let the imagination run wild; thus Mantel freely extrapolates from what is known of her protagonists' personalities and relationships with each other to construct their pasts.
This is a huge, complex novel, but the author has done her homework. Though Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins are at the center of her story, they are by no means the only major characters who populate the novel. Mantel uses historical figures as well as fictional ones to provide different points of view on the story. As she moves from one to the next, her narrative voice changes back and forth from first to third person as she sometimes grants us access to her characters' deepest thoughts and feelings, and other times keeps us guessing. A Place of Greater Safety is a happy marriage of literary and historical fiction, and a bona fide page-turner, as well. --Margaret Prior