Category Archives: Tea and Books Challenge

Tea and Books & This Isn’t Fiction Reading Challenges

These two challenges were hosted in 2013 by Birgit at The Book Garden.

Tea & Books challenge 2013The Tea and Books Challenge was to read Books over 650 pages. I was aiming to read 4 Books for the Berry Tea Devotee Level.

I reached my target and continued to the next level, reading a total of 6 books for the Earl Grey Tea Aficionardo Level.

I read:

  1. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang – finished reading 12 January 2013 (720 pages)
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver – finished reading 1 February 2013 (670 pages)
  3. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton – finished reading 7 April 2013 (670 pages)
  4. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – finished reading 29 June 2013 (845 pages estimated, as I read an e-book that didn’t have page numbers)
  5. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – finished reading 30 August 2013 (1,076 pages)
  6. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – finished reading 20 November 2013 (959 pages

For the This Isn’t Fiction Reading Challenge (ie reading non fiction) there were four Non Fictionlevels to aim for. I nearly made it to Elementary School:

  • 5 Books – Kindergarden
  • 10 Books – Elementary School
  • 15 Books – High School
  • 20 or more Books – College

Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts

Gone with the wind 001Yesterday I finished reading Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece, Gone With The Wind. I loved it. When I started it I decided that I wouldn’t take any notes as I read and neither would I mark any passages. I just wanted the pure reading experience, reading to get immersed in the story and Margaret Mitchell was a superb storyteller. There are parts full of description that enabled me to see the scenes and parts where I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to discover what happened next, or how the characters would behave. It was a grand experience, and not just a reading experience but a learning experience too.

I saw the 1939 film many, many years ago and my memories of it are vague, not much beyond its setting, Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, and a few quotes: ‘Tomorrow is another day’ and Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn’ – this is actually a misquote from the book – Rhett says ‘lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’

 My knowledge of American history is quite limited, so I learnt a lot about the American Civil War and Reconstruction, about slavery (very different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and a lot about Georgia and Atlanta – I couldn’t even have placed them on a map before!!!

I liked the structure of the novel – straightforward chronological sequence told in the third person.

The characters are well-defined and are developed as the book progresses. Even the minor characters are distinct and I had no trouble identifying them. But the main characters are magnificent: Scarlett O’Hara, wilful, spirited, supremely self-centred and single-minded, a cheat and liar, but also charming, brave and fearless, as her character develops from a frivolous flirt to a much darker personality. She is obsessed by her infatuation for Ashley Wilkes, by her need for money and her desperate desire never to be hungry ever again. I swung between not liking her, admiring her courage, then thoroughly disliking the person she became and willing her to change – she didn’t of course.

Rhett Butler, black-hearted, flashy, a speculator, blockade runner and scallawag, who scandalises Atlanta, is the anti-hero who is gradually revealed as a hero, a tender-hearted, over-indulgent father, who really does love Scarlett, even though he can’t tell her. He’s a much more complicated character than Scarlett who understands human nature much better than Scarlett, seeing both the goodness and strength in Melanie Hamilton (Scarlett’s sister-in-law and Ashley’s wife).

There is so much to write about this book, (and I’m thinking of writing at least one more post about it) but for now I’m ending with these words from Margaret Mitchell when she was asked what Gone With The Wind was about:

… if the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don’t. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those that go under? I only know that survivors  used to call that quality ‘gumption’. So I wrote about people who had gumption and those who didn’t. (1936) (About the Author)

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’ve been working my way through some of the books I’ve owned for ages – books I really wanted to read when I bought them, but have since just sat on the bookshelves unread for a variety of reasons. I’ve had The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett for five years! The main reason I haven’t read it before now is its length – it has 1,076 pages!

I can’t remember now why I bought this book, possibly it was because I like historical novels and I like historic buildings and The Pillars of the Earth is set in 12th century England during the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda/Maud (she’s known by both names – in this book she’s called Maud, but at school we were taught her name was Matilda). It’s also the story of the building of a cathedral.

I was interested in the details of building a cathedral, the architecture and building techniques, but it is in essence a family saga. However it is so long-winded and repetitive that I began to think Follett must have written it as maybe three books and then joined them together without editing them, or maybe he was reminding himself of what he’d written earlier – it took him years to complete the book.

It’s a bit like a soap opera – terrible things happen, the characters overcome them and recover only to be knocked down again by more terrible events –  violence, power struggles and rape and pillage abound. It’s a bit simplistic with a really bad, evil character and a saintly one, a beautiful woman and a witch-type and so on. But it kept me entertained without having to think too hard and I even found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading, wondering what could possibly happen next. Parts of the novel came to life more than others – one being near the end of the book with the story of Thomas á Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

There is a sequel, World Without End, set in the same place and featuring descendants of the original characters nearly 200 years after the events in The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not rushing to read it!

There was a TV version – I didn’t see it!

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I was hoping that The Distant Hours, Kate Morton’s third book would be as good as the first,The House at Riverton, which I loved. I’ve read her second book The Forgotten Garden, which disappointed me, because it was predictable and I thought it was a re-working of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. However, I think The Distant Hours is the least satisfying, which is a shame as it promised to be so good at the beginning and the story itself is fascinating …

A dilapidated castle, aristocratic twins, a troubled sister and a series of dark secrets cast a whispery spell … (from the back cover)

It begins with a creepy tale, The True History of the Mud Man, a children’s story written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of the castle. It begins:

Hush … Can you hear him?

The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.

Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that it will soon begin.

The trees know, for they are old and have seen it all before.

A tale which haunts the book. The dark secrets begin to surface when Edie Burchill’s mother receives a long-lost letter written fifty years earlier from one of the sisters at Milderhust Castle. Edie is intrigued but her mother is reluctant to talk about it and about the time that she was an evacuee at the castle during the war.

The story slips backwards and forwards in time between the 1990s and the Second World War and the characters and the descriptions of the settings are fine – up to a point. But the book moves at a snail’s past over its 670 pages. There is just too much unnecessary detail, about things on the periphery that never go anywhere. There is so much that it stifles the narrative and the heartaches, betrayals and tragedies become a catalogue of events. I just wasn’t involved. But this is still an enjoyable book, if over long and not as good as her earlier books.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Some years ago I was browsing in a bookshop at Gatwick airport to add to the books I’d brought with me to read on holiday and I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it. I’ve read some of her other books, but none as good as The Poisonwood Bible. When I saw that she had written The Lacuna and it had won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, (actually beating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall!) I bought it, expecting great things. That was two and half years ago and it’s only this year that I’ve read it.

I was disappointed as I don’t think it’s as good as either Wolf Hall or The Poisonwood Bible. There some good parts, but overall I was glad to finish reading it. It’s a long tale (670 pages), moving from Mexico in the 1930s to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the USA of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it began and ended well, with good descriptions and fascinating characters, but I got bored several times in the middle.

It’s the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. It begins in Mexico where Harrison’s mother took him to live when she left his father to live with a Mexican businessman, she calls Mr Produce the Cash behind his back. I thought this part came to life with lyrical descriptions of the people and the landscape. But it is only in the second half of the novel that I felt Harrison himself came alive as a character, no longer talking about himself in the third person, ‘the boy’, and referring to himself as ‘I’.

Throughout the book Kingsolver intermingles real characters and events with her fictional ones and I thought that worked well. There are the artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Harrison works for Diego, mixing plaster for his huge murals he painted in Mexico City. Whilst working for Rivera, who was a communist he met and subsequently worked for the exiled Bolshevik leader, Lev Trotsky. And it is this connection that eventually lands him in difficulties later on when he had moved to live in the USA and became a novellist writing historical fiction about the Aztecs. He is accused of being a communist and being Un-American.

I found the historical parts very interesting as I knew nothing about Rivera, or his wife, and very little about Trotsky and the McCarthy trials. But eventually I found the level of detail was just too much and the story meandered, losing impetus. Harrison himself comes across as too passive, too accepting of what ever happened to him, a victim of circumstances. Much more interesting is the second narrator, Violet Brown who becomes his secretary and friend, who saved his diaries from being burnt.

There are several instances of lacunas, missing parts and gaps, scattered throughout the book. For example, some of Harrison’s diaries and notebooks go missing. As a boy he loved swimming and diving into a cave, which is only available at certain tides:

Today the cave was gone. Saturday last it was there. Searching the whole rock face below the cliff did not turn it up. Then the tide came higher and waves crashed too hard to keep looking. How could a tunnel open in the rock and then close again? … Leandro says the tides are complicated and the rocks on that side are dangerous, to stay over here in the shallow reef. He wasn’t pleased to hear about the cave. He already knew about it, it is called something already, la lacuna. (page 45)

But although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

It’s taken me a couple of months to read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (first published in 1991), Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.

Needless to say that this is a harrowing book to read, but it’s also an eye-opener (for me at any rate) about what happened in China under Mao.

Jung Chang was born in Yibin, Sichuan Province, China, in 1952. She was briefly a Red Guard at the age of fourteen, and then a peasant, a ‘barefoot doctor’, a steelworker and an electrician. She came to Britain in 1978, and in 1982 became the first person from the People’s Republic of China to receive a doctorate from a British university. ‘Wild Swans’  won the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year. She lives in London.

In Wild Swans she casts light on why and how Mao was able to exercise such paralysing control over the Chinese people. His magnetism and power was so strong and coupled with his immense skill at manipulation and his ability to inspire fear, it proved enough to subdue the spirit of most of the population; not to mention the absolute cruelty, torture and hardships they had to endure.

I wondered how she knew so much about what happened to her mother and grandmother (I don’t know nearly as much about mine) but in the Introduction she explains that when her mother came to visit her in London they talked every day for months. She talked about their eventful lives – her grandmother had been a concubine of a warlord general and her mother had joined the Communist underground at the age of 15. She also recorded sixty hours of her memories.

I wrote a bit about the book in a Book Beginnings post at the end of last November, when I’d just started to read it. It’s a personal story, reflecting the twentieth century history of China. A remarkable book, full of courage and spirit.

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: HarperPress; New edition edition (1 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007463405
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007463404
  • Source: borrowed from a friend

Tea and Books Reading Challenge 2013

Tea & Books challenge 2013

Birgit at The Book Garden is hosting the second edition of the TEA & BOOKS Reading Challenge! This challenge was inspired by C.S. Lewis’ famous words, “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
In this challenge you will only get to read … books with more than 650 pages!

  • You may pick both fiction and non fiction books!
  • Contrary to last year short story collections, anthologies or collected works in one volume are now allowed!
  • Re-reads will now also be ok (though preferably you should read one of those unread tomes that have been collecting dust on your shelves)!
  • Last year you had to read 700+ pages but for 2013 it has reduced to 650+ pages.
  • And as a little incentive – books with more than 1,200 pages will count for two books (so theoretically you can read four such super-chunksters to reach the Sencha Connoisseur level)!
  • Last but not least – no large print editions of a book, please!
There are four levels and I’ll be aiming for the Berry Tea Devotee!
  • 2 Books – Chamomile Lover
  • 4 Books – Berry Tea Devotee
  • 6 Books – Earl Grey Aficionado
  • 8 or more Books – Sencha Connoisseur

I have several books to choose from – some that I listed last year and never got round to reading. I had no idea I had so many books of over 650 pages! Here they are in ascending page number order:

  1. Into Temptation by Penny Vincenzi (654 pages)
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (670 pages)
  3. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (704 pages)
  4. Dreams of Innocence by Lisa Appignanesi (712 pages)
  5. This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (750 pages)
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George (755 pages)
  7. Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser (758 pages)
  8. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (769 pages)
  9. No Name by Wilkie Collins (784 pages)
  10. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  11. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (800 pages)
  12. The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley (834 pages)
  13. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (848 pages)
  14. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (894 pages)
  15. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (906 pages)
  16. Ulysses by James Joyce (944 pages)
  17. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1088 pages)

I’m just aiming to read four of them (last year I read just 3 books of over 700 pages each). I’d like to think I’ll read more than four of these books next year, but I’m being realistic – I do want to read other books and I can’t see myself reading more than one of them a month! I’m not deciding in which order I’ll be reading them – it has to be a spontaneous decision at the time.

This challenge will also contribute towards the Mount TBR Challenge, as I’ve owned these books for some time (years in some cases).

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to know just what to write about Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The General Introduction to the book advises that you enjoy the book before reading the Introduction (which I did), so I have tried not to reveal any spoilers in this post.

  • It’s Dickens’s last complete book, first published in 19 monthly instalments from May 1864 to November 1865. It’s meant to be read at a leisurely pace.
  • It’s a long multiplot novel, with a multitude of characters.
  • In it Dickens comments on the ills of contemporary society.
  • It concerns mysteries, lost identities, hidden wills, corruption and violence.
  • It’s varied in style, sometimes comic, other times serious, sometimes sombre and dark and at others ironic and flippant.
  • It’s written in both the past and present tense and from the characters’ differing perspectives.

Brief synopsis (from the back cover of the Wordsworth Classic edition)

The chief of its several plots centres on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. He is believed drowned under suspicious circumstances – a situation convenient to his wish for anonymity until he can evaluate Bella Wilfer whom he must marry to secure his inheritance. The story is filled with colourful characters and incidents – the faded aristocrats and parvenus gathered at the Veneering’s dinner table, Betty Higden and her terror of the workhouse and the greedy plottings of Silas Wegg.

My view

Although it nows reads like historical fiction, in the mid 1860s Our Mutual Friend was modern up-to-date fiction, beginning with the words:  ‘In these times of ours’, in case there was any doubt in the readers’ minds.

The opening chapter reveals a darkly atmospheric scene on the River Thames, a modern scene for its first readers,with a macabre story of a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, searching the Thames for human corpses:

Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. (pages 3-4)

In direct contrast in the next chapter Dickens moves to the nouveau-riche setting of the Veneerings house:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick-and-span new. (page 7)

Just like their name the Veneerings are all show, all surface, without any depth. They collect people as well as objects. Their standing in society is dependent on their wealth – just as Gaffer Hexham’s is at the other end of the financial strata. And there is a great emphasis on money, wealth and poverty in Our Mutual Friend.

There are some wonderful characters, such as the Boffins, Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to name but a few. As John Harmon is presumed to have been drowned in  the Thames (the body found by Gaffer Hexham), it is his father’s faithful servants, Mr and Mrs Boffin who inherit the miserly and incredibly wealthy ‘dust’ contractor’s fortune. This pair are at first unchanged by their good fortune and take in Bella Wilfer, the socially ambitious young woman who would have married Harmon, had he lived. Through these characters Dickens shows the effect that greed in all its forms can have.

I particularly like Dickens’s depiction of Wegg, who is employed by Mr Boffin to read to him what he calls the ‘Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ Wegg is a hard, rascally character, out for anything he can get. His wooden leg reflects his nature:

Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. … Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected — if his development received no untimely check — to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months. (page 43)

Wegg is one of the characters that Dickens also uses to inject some humour. He is obsessed with his lost leg and goes to Mr Venus’s shop to see if he can find it for him – Venus is an articulator of skeletons and a taxidermist, who has great skill in piecing things together. He boasts:

Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I’d name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick ‘em out, and I’d sort them all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you. (page 77)

Wegg is positive that he doesn’t want anyone’s bones:

… I tell you openly I should not like – under such circumstances, to be what I call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person. (page 77)

It’s not just social injustices, the class system, the importance of money, property, greed and materialism that Dickens highlights, but also family relationships – in particular that of fathers and daughters and the position of women. He also concentrates on instances of violence, through drownings and physical assaults.

There is so much in this novel, more that I can explore in this (long) post. I haven’t even touched on the majority of the major characters.

This Wentworth Classics edition includes the original illustrations by Marcus Stone. The one shown below is ‘The person of the house and the bad child‘ – this shows ‘Jenny Wren’, the dolls’ dressmaker, whose back is ‘so bad‘ and whose legs are ‘so queer‘, and her drunken father, who she calls her ‘bad child‘ and treats him as such.

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Ed edition (1 Jan 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853261947
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853261947
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3.5/5

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: a Book Review

Given a choice of reading one long book or several shorter books, in the past I’ve always gone for the long book, as I like to got lost in a book, but more recently I’ve preferred shorter books. So this is the reason that Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has sat on my bookshelves unread for a few years. It took me over a month to read it and I did pause for a while to read other shorter books in between. And this book is certainly a book that takes you to another time and place.

It is a remarkable book about the French Revolution concentrating on three of the revolutionaries – Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, from their childhoods to their deaths. Along with these three main characters there is a whole host of characters and without the cast list at the beginning of the book I would have struggled to keep track of them. In fact, some of the lesser characters were just names to me and I never saw them clearly, but that didn’t surprise or deter me, given the enormity of the task of chronicling the events of the French Revolution.

But the main characters stand out and there are also vivid portraits of such people as Mirabeau (a renegade aristocrat), Lafayette (a general in the American Revolutionary War and a Commander of the French National Guard), Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I was also fascinated to read about Jean-Paul Marat  (he who was murdered in his bath), the Marquis de Sade and Pierre de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuse) – I didn’t know anything about de Sade’s and de Laclos’s involvement in the Revolution.

My European History at school stopped at 1789, so although I remembered listing the causes of the Revolution and the events that led up to it, my knowledge of the main event, as it were, is patchy and incomplete, mainly gathered from books such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and TV programmes over the years. I found the first part of A Place of Greater Safety covered much of the ground that I was familiar with, but seen through the eyes of the three main characters as they grew up.

Despite Mantel’s insight into the personal lives and characters of the three main protagonists I never really sympathised with any of them – after all they were responsible for the deaths of many people, including their own friends and played a major part in the Reign of Terror. But at times I was drawn into hoping that they would escape their fate – they were all guillotined. They were all lawyers who grew up in the provinces, knew each from their youth and moved to Paris.

Camille Desmoulins is perhaps the star of the book. It was he who instigated the storming of the Bastille. He was by all accounts a charismatic character, despite his stutter. He and Danton lived close to each other, and Danton, a large, loud and ugly man who had the power of captivating his audiences, had a liaison with Lucille, Camille’s wife. Robespierre was a much cooler character and his involvement in the Terror (in which many people lost their heads) was chilling. But even he came over under Mantel’s pen as almost a likeable human being, revealing his weaknesses as well as his power. As long as he could he shielded Danton and Camille as opposition to them grew.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book isn’t written in the first person, but it moves between the first and third person points of view, giving an almost panoramic view of the characters and their attitudes to the Revolution. It really is written in a most diverse style, moving between locations, characters and even tense. There are also passages written as script-style dialogue, passages from recorded speeches and pamphlets, ‘woven’ into Mantel’s own dialogue. She writes in her Author’s Note that this is not an impartial account and she has tried to see the world as her characters saw it, so where she could she used their own words.

The events of this book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. …

I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. …

I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true. (pages ix-x)

I think, for me, that Hilary Mantel succeeded with this book. I have struggled reading other books written in the present tense, but either I’m getting more used to it, or Hilary Mantel’s style has won me over. Either way, reading this book and Wolf Hall has been a pleasure – ‘real journeys’ into other times and places.

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; (Reissue) edition (4 Mar 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 000725055X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007250554
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 4/5

Today I’m eagerly waiting for the follow up to Wolf Hall to be delivered to my letter box: Bring Up the Bodies is published today and I’ve had an email saying it’s on its way to me.