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A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel Paperback – October, 1998

3.9 out of 5 stars 241 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

"History is fiction," Robespierre observes at one point during British writer Mantel's monumental fictive account of the French Revolution, her first work to appear in this country. In her hands, it is a spellbinding read. Mantel recounts the events between the fall of the ancien regime and the peak of the Terror as seen through the eyes of the three protagonists--Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins--and a huge cast of supporting characters (including brief appearances by the scrofulous Marat). The three revolutionaries, longtime acquaintances, spend their days scheming and fighting for a corruption-free French Republic, but their definitions of "corrupt" are as different as the men themselves. Robespierre is the fulcrum. Rigidly puritanical, he is able to strike terror into the most stalwart of hearts, and his implacable progress towards his goal makes him the most formidable figure of the age. As the lusty, likable and ultimately more democratic Danton observes, it is impossible to hurt anyone who enjoys nothing. The feckless, charming Camille Desmoulins, loved by all but respected by few, dances between the two, writing incendiary articles to keep the flames of revolt alive. Mantel makes use of diaries, letters, transcripts and her own creative imagination to create vivid portraits of the three men, their families, friends and the character of their everyday lives. Her gift is such that we hang on to every word, following bewildering arguments and Byzantine subplots with eager anticipation. This is historical fiction of the first order. History Book Club, QPB and BOMC alternates.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 749 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; 1st edition (October 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805052046
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805052046
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (241 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,336,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Mantel's very absorbing novel is good for two reasons. First, it evokes an excellent sense of time, of place, and of events, during the French Revolution. Possibly more than any historical work about the events of the Revolution, this novel captures the true zeitgeist of the times. Second, and closely linked to the first reason, is the author's vivid depiction of three characters - Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins - as living, breathing, sinning creatures. Above all is the author's suggestion of the randomness of events, what we now proclaim History. Revolutions produce upheaval: they displace, promote or overthrow people. And as in life, the author ultimately suggests, we all seek that one thing: a place of greater safety. This book verges on an imperfect brilliance.
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Format: Paperback
I have just finished this book, so I am not yet able to criticize it successfully from any angle. If there is any qualification to make, it is that you need to devote a good week to it, about four days to read, and three to get back to a person your friends will recognize.

After seven years of English and Journalism classes, I am not sure why Mantel's name did not come up once. There is nothing extraneous here, nothing fantastic to the point of unbelievability. The characters mature and change and determine and repel each other. No one is a saint nor, with one minor exception, do they deserve their sentences. In her Camille Desmoulins -for the majority of the novel, at least- there is a great literary archetype of exuberant, young egotism. At first, we blame him for nothing, then everything. At the last, he looks disturbingly like his reader.

Danton, by the same turn, starts out in much the vein of Stanislawa Przybyszewka's Georges-Jacques, the big lug. He gets away with things that you wonder if you'd forgive exuberant genius for, which- of course- you would. He is admirable as one true to his own interests if nothing else. Then, in one of the most skilled revelations in the literature I've read, his true, unwavering dedication to the principle behind the whole big mess he has helped create is fully uncovered, and too late. There are plenty of places to cry big, philosophical tears in this book.

There are plenty of places to laugh, too. Those familiar with Mantel's other works will recognize here her ongoing jabs at, well, pretty much everybody, but feminist representative Nicolas Condorcet here in particular for his jealousy of Robespierre over the female attention he felt should rightfully have been his.
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Format: Paperback
This is quite likely ther greatest historical fiction ever written about the French Revolution.
It follows the careers of three of the revolution's architects - Georges Danton, who wants to be rich and famous; Camille Desmoulins, who wants just once in his life to make his father proud of him; and sensitive Robespierre, Camille's school friend who believes there's something wrong with the system but isn't out for blood.
Camille is center stage at the storming of the Bastille - a stage he will never quite again regain. Danton becomes involved in the political aftermath, and they drag Robespierre kicking and screaming into the bloodbath that follows.
Eventually Danton is softened by the death of his long-suffering wife and Camille is horrified when friends start to go to the guillotine. Robespierre, however, has indeed become the fanatic they wanted to make him. They realize he must be stopped - but with Danton involved in government corruption and Camille seen weeping publicly for a condemned prisoner and emotionally torn between his two friends, it may be too late...
The storytelling here is masterful, sympathies wavering from one of the trio to another - an amazing feat considering that the "Citizens" have to be among history's great mass murderers. The book is long, but nothing really could have been left out - the Revolution was this epic in scope. Other historical figures weave in and out of the narrative - an initially stupid and vain but ultimately moving Marie Antoinette; briefly but memorably a harried Lafayette who realizes they are at the brink of something far more horrible than the Revolution's older sister in America but can't change the tide of history by himself; and many others - above all a frightening Marat.
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This novel is a benchmark in historical fiction---comparisons others have made here to Dickens and Tolstoy are not hyperbole. This is a stunning intellectual achievement in its depth of characterization and sheer narrative verve...and, to steal from one of the reviews on the paperback's back cover, all brought off with "Mantel's customary black sparkle."

There is a knowingness in this book about human nature which makes nearly everything else I've read lately taste of cardboard. Historicity aside---and it is very good history, if psychohistory of the Shakespearean stripe---the dialogue is so theatrically sharp, you wonder why no one has tried to film this. Short answer: it's probably [and thankfully] unfilmable.

There are gems [often drawn from sheer dint of research] any writer would be thrilled to have composed: the schoolboy Robespierre reciting a rote speech to Louis XV's closed carriage in the rain; the midnight meeting between Desmoulins and the Duc d'Orleans; Danton's slow circling of Lucile Desmoulins; the madness of the show trials, with the tumbrils already ordered, awaiting the walking dead.

Writers who look their art square in the eye know that they are called to write masterpieces: nothing else matters.

This, simply, is one. It will go down as one of the great fictional accomplishments of the 20th century.

And while you're at it, read Mantel's autobiography. It's terrifyingly real too: you'll understand where her eerily precise eye for human behaviour first saw practice.
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