Friday, March 6, 2009

Another book not finished

Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety (1993) sounded like it should be my kind of book: big historical fiction set during the French Revolution that's as much about the idea of history as it is politics and with Danton and Robespierre as major characters. Or as the Telegraph put it a "perfect historical novel, given numerous bracing modern twists" that's "as tumultuous, crowded and exciting as the storming of the Bastille".

In the end I made it through about a hundred of its 750 pages. The problem is that is, in fact, big and has Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins as main characters - just what I was expecting, right? Except that after a while I start to wonder how much is really true. Did Danton really do that or Robespierre really think that way? Putting them so front and center leads to such thoughts in a way that having the familiar figures a bit off to the side doesn't. Wouldn't it be better to just read a biography? (Sitting right beside me now is Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity.)

But that's only if I was reading for purely historical information which isn't why I picked up a novel in the first place. After a while A Place of Greater Safety started wandering more than even an expansive historical novel should. The final straw was a fairly long chapter focusing on the internal thoughts (as opposed I guess to external thoughts) of a teenage girl in a home that Danton--or was it Robespierre--visits frequently. The chapter appeared to be nothing but padding, not advancing the story (even as little as it was) or giving a different view to a main character or period feel or seemingly anything at all. For all I know this would later turn out to be a critical turning point but that seems unlikely, especially given that so much up to then felt pretty haphazard. Perhaps Mantel pulled everything together into a stunning tapestry (tag irony) but I couldn't summon the interest to care.