Paperback: 872 pages
Publisher: Fourth Estate (March 2010)
From the double Man Booker prize-winner comes an extraordinary work of historical imagination – this is Hilary Mantel’s epic novel of the French Revolution.
Georges-Jacques Danton: zealous, energetic and debt-ridden. Maximilien Robespierre: small, diligent and terrified of violence. And Camille Desmoulins: a genius of rhetoric, charming and handsome, yet also erratic and untrustworthy. As these young men, key figures of the French Revolution, taste the addictive delights of power, the darker side of the period’s political ideals is unleashed – and all must face the horror that follows.
Before I review the book I want to let you know that I struggled with this one. I didn’t read it through choice – I am studying the French Revolution in September as part of my English & History degree and the lecturer recommended we read this book to gain an overview of what happened, this was backed up by an English lecturer who recommended we read it so we understand more about the times to coincide with her modules in year 2 English. I am not one for Historical fiction books so I was excited to read this and see how I got on. I debated whether to order this on Kindle or as a paperback and I decided to stick to my rule that any books for Uni will always be purchased as physical books. When the book arrived I was gobsmacked at the size of it – 872 pages! It took me about 5 weeks to actually make a start on the reading – partly down to having exams and partly because of the size of it.
i had read many reviews on the book – mainly saying stick with it! – and so I started on what would become a 6 week endurance trip! I started off not knowing a thing about the French revolution other than it was something that happened in France a few hundred years ago, involved a King called Louis and had something to do with lots of people getting their heads cut off!
The first couple of hundred pages are really just setting the scene and introducing the characters. I found that with some of the characters I didn’t really see why Hilary Mantel spent so much time introducing them, but then later in the book I wished I had paid a bit more attention to who they were. I found it hard to get my groundings with the book and the story in the beginning – I was waiting for the main event, the Revolution. What happened was actually very subtle and very clever. The Revolution is drip fed into the story. It isn’t a build up and build up to one massive event, you read and then find that the revolution has crept up on you.
I was impressed at the influence the women seemed to have on the story and the respect they were given as wives of the key figures – very different to women in England at the time. The male characters were interesting! I found it difficult that sometimes they were referred to as their christian names and then others as their surnames but when you get to around page 300 you have learnt that Desmoulins is also Camille, Robespierre is also Max and Georges/Georges-Jaques is also Danton.
The perspective of the story changes continually – again it is very subtle. In one paragraph you have a narrator telling you what is happening and then in the next the story is told from the perspective of Camille, Max, Georges or someone else and you don’t always know whose eyes you are seeing the story through until a few sentences in. Character wise, I warmed to Max – I started off disliking him and finding him very cold but towards the end I liked his integrity, although his allegiance to Camille did annoy me. Georges started off as a favourite of mine but then I saw his true, two-faced colours and his sleazy treatment of women and towards the end I despised him and wanted them to hurry up and cut his head off. Camille I always found to be snakey and untrustworthy.
Throughout the book, I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened and that Hilary Mantel had based the story on factual evidence. There was one paragraph where they gang raped a woman, cut her head off, ripped her heart out and drank her blood. Nice!
Once you can get over the size of the book, if size is an issue for you (!!), it is an enjoyable read. I do wish i had bought it on Kindle then I may have enjoyed it better without physically being able to see how big it was. A few reviews I read did say that once you had got past half way and had less left to read than you had already read it became easier – I disagree as instead I found myself trying to race to the end and getting frustrated that I couldn’t get there. I tried reading a chapter at a time but some of the chapters were 50 pages long!
Overall, I did enjoy the book and I now know what happened in the French revolution. I avoided googling to find out what happened so the end was a surprise (ish) to me – you won’t be surprised to know that some people lose their heads at the end! I didn’t cry though which one of my lecturers and two of my class mates said they did – maybe I was just relieved to finish it.
My reward now is to read 4 books of my own choice before starting on my year 2 summer uni reading!