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Monday, 17 February 2014

Book review: A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (1992)

The author's success in keeping me interested - or, more precisely, her lack of success in this regard - meant I stopped reading at page 75 in a 750-page novel. You lose track of who's being dealt with, for a start. Is this Robespierre? D'Anton? Desmoulins? Heaven forbid you put down the book for a day or two and come back to it because you'll be completely lost in your tracking of the progress of these young men. And as happens with a lot of biographical treatments (non-fiction biographies are notorious for this structural deficit, which operates as a kind of obligation on the author's part and, like most obligations, it's just tiresome) Mantel starts right at the beginning - in childhood - and trundles on from there like an unpsrung wagon over cobblestones.

The men were all major players in the French Revolution and what we're supposed to see in these early stages of the narrative are the "seeds" of what they would become. And because Mantel is writing from a point of view 200 years after the events she deals with it's hard to offer surprises. It's just a lack of inventiveness. Everything "means something", is supposed to have a weight, an import beyond what's immediately apparent to those involved at the time. But it's dull.

Mantel tries to enliven the sludge by using a "light touch" - which is partly responsible for your never knowing who's in the frame at any given time - and a set of colourful metaphors that do not, however, consone with the aesthetic bent of the era. As a result you have a lot of writing that borrows its strength from a time far in the future in order to leaven the mix in the book's present. If the tropes were any good it might work but they're very average even for us now, and do not sufficiently stimulate the reader's attention, so they sit wobbling on the page like tricked-up anachronisms, or like gift boxes of chocolates at a gourmet picnic. They remain untouched on the grass and the ants of indifference end up getting at them.

I felt like each piece of artistic language was a present from some rarely-seen aunt from some stagnant by-water of the family tree and the incongruity of her offering related to her misapprehension of what I am interested in and what I need. Historical fiction hides deadly traps like this but it is the author's responsibility to make sure the language both matches the reader's ear and answers the questions the drama unfolding poses. Part of the problem may have to do with the fact that the protagonists Mantel chose are all men and, as a woman writer, she simply misses what they might have felt because of a lack of empathy.

There's no doubt the book is ambitious. It's just that the author fails to capitalise on the opportunities available to create drama partly because of the "light touch" she uses and partly because of a failure of imagination. Mantel is not "there" enough to enable us to see what she imagines should be seen, and the novel falls over in a heap of plot scraps and inappropriate poetic language.

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