As Hilary Mantel states in the author’s note, "[t]his is a novel about the French Revolution and almost all of the characters in it are real people". Mantel goes on to write that the novel “is closely tied to historical facts – as far as those facts are agreed – which isn’t really very far”. The narrative focuses on three men who are central to the Revolution: the hard-headed pragmatist, Georges-Jacques Danton; the passionate rabble-rouser, Camille Desmoulins and the fanatic ideologue, Maximilien Robespierre. It follows their lives from their school days to the height of the Reign of Terror.
I came to this extremely long novel not because I had any particular interest in the French Revolution, but because I fell in love with Mantel’s writing in [b:Wolf Hall|6101138|Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)|Hilary Mantel|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1336576165s/6101138.jpg|6278354] and [b:Bring Up the Bodies|13507212|Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell, #2)|Hilary Mantel|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1330649655s/13507212.jpg|14512257] and wanted to read more of her work. I was initially disconcerted by the extraordinarily long character list at the front of the novel: some thirteen (Kindle-sized) pages. The one disadvantage of reading a very long book on an e-reader is the inability to easily flick back through the pages, which meant that after that first eye-glazing encounter with the character list, I didn’t consult it again. However, I didn’t need to, as I had no difficulty following the plot and (more or less) keeping track of who's who.
Mantel’s style is idiosyncratic. She moves from past to present tense and from third person to first person narration, with the occasional instance of addressing the reader directly. Some of the narrative consists of dialogue in the form of a script. All of this shouldn’t work, but it does for me. I simply love the way Mantel writes. She has a wonderful way with words. Take her description of the Duke of Orléan’s former mistress, for example:
Felicité is a woman of sweet and iron willfulness, and she writes books. There are few acres in the field of human knowledge that she has not ploughed with her harrowing pedantry.
Or the way she describes Camille Desmoulin’s feeling about writing:
When it was time to write, and he took his pen in his hand, he never thought of consequences, he thought of style. I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.
Although I read this book mostly because I want to read everything Mantel writes, it has also made me very much interested in the French Revolution. Thanks to Mantel, I feel like I understand what happened over those tumultuous years. More than that, I feel like I was there, inside the heads of the players. And even though I knew how it was all going to end, the final few pages still devastated me.
I keep telling myself that I prefer history and biography to novels about real historical figures. But Hilary Mantel converts me to historical fiction. I've spent two weeks totally engaged with the meticulously researched world she has created and I completely believe her version of the French Revolution. If I could give this novel more than five stars, I would. This was another buddy read with my friend Jemidar, who shares my fan girl enthusiasm for Hilary Mantel's writing.