City of Darkness, City of Light by Marge Piercey AND A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel


Both of these novels about the French Revolution, which were published in the 1990s (Mantel’s in 1992 and Piercy’s in 1996) have been on my radar for awhile, and since they are both by authors whose other work I’ve enjoyed, and I always feel like I don’t know enough about the French Revolution, I decided I should read them both this summer.

In retrospect, this may have been overdoing it. I’d definitely recommend that if you want to know more about the French Revolution and if, like me, you learn history best through historical fiction, you should read at least one of these novels. Which one will depend on your tastes in reading. But there’s enough similarity between the two that you probably don’t need to read both, as I did.

Both books tell the story of the Revolution from the perspective of several key revolutionary characters, alternating points of view and taking the story from these characters’ childhoods up to their deaths, which for most of them (not coincidentally) occurred in 1794 during the Reign of Terror. Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximillien Robespierre are central characters in both novels. Mantel’s book adds as a third main character Camille Desmoulins (who is present, but less central, in Piercy’s book): other characters, including the women associated with these men, come in and out of focus in the mostly-omniscient narrative, but for the most part A Place of Greater Safety is the story of Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins.

City of Darkness, City of Light also focuses on the male political leaders of the Revolution, but she has a more varied cast of characters. Three women are also central figures in Piercy’s novel: the intellectual Manon Roland, the actress Claire Lacombe, and working-class revolutionary Pauline Leon. While in A Place of Greater Safety the female characters are mostly introduced only because of their relationship with the male ones, in City the women are revolutionaries and key players in their own right. The inclusion of the female perspective helps to round out the story, as does the perspective of working-class characters like Claire and Pauline. In Safety we see the perspective of the middle-class politicians who both need and are afraid of the Paris “mob”; City brings us into the middle of that mob and reminds us that while people like Danton and Robespierre always had food on the table regardless of which way the political wind was blowing, people like Pauline Leon and her neighbours were motivated to become revolutionaries by the very real pangs of hunger they felt when bread was in short supply.

Despite appreciating the broader perspective of the Piercy novel, I found Mantel’s book a much more engaging and emotionally powerful read. I think it simply comes down to a matter of writing style. I know from discussions around Wolf Hall that not everyone likes Mantel’s style. A Place of Greater Safety is quite different from Wolf Hall — rather than the intense and almost claustrophobic immersion in one character’s point of view that we get in the Cromwell novels, the point of view here is omniscient, dipping into and out of characters’ perspectives sometimes in the length of a paragraph, sometimes even slipping into first-person for a few pages, or writing a scene in the form of a dramatic script. The style is far more consciously “literary,” which is not going to be to everyone’s taste. City of Darkness, City of Light uses a much more straightforward storytelling style, alternating chapters between the viewpoint of different characters, yet somehow it didn’t grip me as much. Piercy’s novel was informative; Mantel’s made me care deeply about the characters and dread the inevitable fate I knew was coming for all of them.

These are both excellent novels with some significant similarities and differences; in the end, which one you read probably comes down to a matter of taste. If you want a good novel that gives an overview of the French Revolution and the people involved, flip through a few pages of both books (either in a literal bookstore, or online if you’re give the option to “Look inside”) and decide which portal you’ll choose to take you back to the 1790s and the exciting, turbulent and ultimately deadly years of the Revolution.

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Who Do You Love, by Jennifer Weiner

whodoyouloveI always enjoy a good Jennifer Weiner novel and I enjoyed reading this one even while I struggled with the basic premise of the novel. Who Do You Love plays with the idea of “soulmates,” the concept that two people are destined to be together no matter what difficulties life puts in their way. It’s a concept I’ve always been suspicious of in my personal life so I guess I question it in fiction too, even though it is such a common trope in novels.

Rachel and Andy, the heroine and hero of Who Do You Love, first meet by chance as eight-year-olds in a hospital waiting room. Years later, they meet again by chance as teenage volunteers on a Habitat-like house-building project, and from that point on their lives are intertwined. The feeling is that there’s something inevitable about them coming together as a couple, even though the issues that drive them apart are real enough and would certainly be challenging in a long-term relationship. Weiner’s writing is, as always, engaging, and Rachel and Andy are both attractive enough characters with interesting enough lives that it’s a pleasure to read about them, even if I question the novel’s message that any two people are really “destined” to be together no matter what.

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Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

underthewideIn the familiar category of novels about women who are famous because of the men they knew or loved comes Under the Wide and Starry Sky, a novel about Fanny Osbourne, the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson. I found this book quite informative as I’ve always been interested in Stevenson but didn’t know much about his life. Fanny comes across to reader as a woman who, like so many of her time, wanted to have an artistic career in her own right but was encouraged to channel her ambitions into supporting a man instead. She’s a feisty, often difficult character, and the combination of the mental illness that she suffers later in life with the physical illnesses that plagued Stevenson throughout his life makes for a realistic portrait of a marriage that saw a lot more “worse” than it did “better,” a lot more sickness than health. 

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Acts and Omissions, by Catherine Fox

actsandomissionsNow we go straight from my review of a book by a favourite author that I’d been eagerly anticipating and absolutely loved, to a book by an author I’d never heard of, only picked up because it was being discussed in an online book club and looked sort of interesting … which I also absolutely loved. Going straight from Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest to Catherine Fox’s Acts and Omissions was like going from a wonderful vacation in a beautiful spot to another vacation in a completely different spot — like going from the beach to the mountains, or vice versa. The only shared elements were that I read both books ravenously and far too quickly, and all I wanted in either case when I was done was an unobtainable sequel (unobtainable in Hobb’s case because it’s not been written yet and in Fox’s because although it’s written and published I can’t get hold of it in my country yet!).

But enough of my reading adventures: what about the actual book?

Catherine Fox is attempting, pretty transparently I think, to do for the twenty-first century Church of England what Anthony Trollope did in the nineteenth-century with his Barchester novels: use the Church and its clergy as the setting for a series of novels featuring a wide variety of characters living through ordinary and earth-shattering moments. I both laughed aloud and cried genuine tears while reading Acts and Omissions, which is set in and around the fictional Lindchester Cathedral and explores the lives of a large group of characters over the course of a calendar (and church) year.

Right off the top, one thing I know some readers won’t like about this book is the narrative voice. Acts and Omissions features not only an omniscient narrator, but a very intrusive one who addresses the reader directly and comments on the actions of the characters — who, in other words, tells as well as shows in the way that was quite acceptable for novelists of Trollope’s era but that fell out of favour in the twentieth century (though now that we’re all postmodern and meta, the voice of the intrusive narrator is having its day again). Dickens, Trollope, Austin, all the nineteenth century novelists used this voice, and some readers of today will find it jarring (or will not mind the device but will find the slightly snarky voice of this particular narrator annoying; I don’t, but I understand why some people do). I’m reminded most of Thackery and the closing lines of Vanity Fair: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Fox, like those nineteenth-century novelists, never lets us forget that we are reading a novel about fictional characters — yet somehow the characters come to life of their own accord and leap off the page as real people who can make us laugh and cry (see my note above about laughing and crying).

There are several levels on which to enjoy this book, which I’ll categorize as the Anglican Level, the Christian Level, and the General Human Being Level. There’s obviously a lot of rich material here for Anglicans, especially those familiar with church hierarchies and politics, and despite the narrator’s best attempts to make some of this clear to the rest of us, a lot of this will just sail over the heads of readers like me who are not members of the Anglican church. This is OK; I don’t mind inside jokes and references, since that’s part of why I read — to catch glimpses into other worlds and other subcultures. So when the narrator assures us, before introducing the wonderful character of the Archdeacon Matt, that we will of course have certain preconceptions in our head as soon as she says “the Archdeacon” — well, no, of course I don’t; I haven’t got the faintest clue what an Archdeacon is or does, and thus have no idea of the stereotypes about Archdeacons. But I’m OK with that.

I read this book accepting the hardcore Church of England business as I would accept a lot of the details in a novel set among cannibal tribes on a remote Pacific island — I don’t understand it, but it’s interesting to read about. Where the novel touched me most deeply was on what I’ll call the Christian level — because apart from the machinations of a particular church culture, this is a novel about hope, faith and redemption; about the ways we try to be better people and often tragically fail; about how our religious faith can both help us along that path and sometimes, for some of us, be the stumbling block that makes us fall. 

The novel has, as I’ve said, a huge cast of characters and the narrator dips in and out of their lives, but the central conflict of the story focuses mainly on Paul Henderson, the Bishop of Lindchester, his wife Susanna, and a troubled young man named Freddie May who they’ve taken to live in their home for a few months. The personal struggles of these characters and a host of others are set against the bigger-world backdrop of the Church of England’s struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage, significant to this story because Paul is a fairly conservative bishop who opposes same-sex marriage but has, of course, gay clergy and gay parishioners in his care, as well as a large number of more liberal colleagues who completely disagree with his stance. The political becomes very personal by the end of the novel, not just for Bishop Paul but for many others.

This is not a “Christian novel” in the sense that you’d expect to find it on the shelves of a Christian bookstore where you can be guaranteed no swear words, no sex, and a Jesus-driven resolution to every conflict by the last page. But it is a deeply  Christian novel in the sense that it is about real people struggling with the real issues of living a life of faith (or avoiding doing so, as not every character in the book is a professed Christian). While I think this is a human enough and interesting enough story to be enjoyed on the General Human Being Level by readers who are not particularly interested in questions of faith, I feel like it’s written primarily for people who do see the big (and little) struggles of human life playing out on the bigger canvas that contains God, hope, redemption, sin and salvation. While this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea it was absolutely mine: I fell in love with almost every character (even the unlikable ones) and cannot wait to spend more time in Lindchester. If only I can get my hands on that sequel!


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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

foolsquestI don’t know if I need to get into detail on how amazingly good this book is: perhaps you just need to refer to my review of Fool’s Assassin from last summer to get a sense of what I’m talking about. Let’s just say that in the couple of days before Fool’s Quest was released I re-read Fool’s Assassin so all its events would be fresh in my mind, then spent the next couple of days devouring Fool’s Quest as soon as it downloaded to my Kobo. Immersed back in the world of the Six Duchies, I followed the adventures of FitzChivalry Farseer, finally reunited with his beloved Fool, the friend he thought he’d never see again. But every gain has a loss: the same incident that brought a broken and dying Fool back to Fitz’s side also robbed him of his beloved nine-year-old daughter Bee, and now Fitz has to decide how best get Bee back — or to get revenge, if saving her is not possible.

The worst thing about this book was knowing I’ll have to wait at least another year to find out how the story ends. The best thing about this book was everything else.

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Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldThis is probably one of the most talked-about books of 2015, and it’s a quick read, and I think everyone should read it. It has important things to say about the issues of race in the United States, and you don’t have to be American to appreciate it and learn from it. In the wake of the past year’s string of fatal incidents involving US police officers and African-American men, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates frames this book (really three long essays) as a series of letters to his teenaged son about his own experience growing up as a black man in the United States and his hopes and fears for his son.

This book is by no means an easy read with easy, comforting answers for us white folk. Coates is unsparing in his criticism of what he calls “the Dream of Whiteness” and the systemic violence it has inflicted upon black people. This book is astringent and angry and raw in places, and it’s always thought-provoking.

As a white person living in a place that doesn’t have a long history of white-vs-black racial discrimination (only because of lack of diversity in the population, not because we’re any better than other people), it was important for me not only to learn about how at least one African-American man views his country’s racial divide, but also to put what Coates says into the context of other forms of discrimination. For example, a lot of what he says about growing up in the slums of an American city grows out of not just racial but class prejudice: some of his experiences, I know, are common to people from poor families in poor neighbourhoods all over North America, regardless of race. And at least one experience he describes — dining out with a new acquaintance on a trip to France — made me reflect that perhaps his experience as a black man made him able to appreciate a little of the wary vigilance with which most of us women always approach the world (“Yes, you’re being very nice and friendly to me now, but I’m still on guard against the moment when you might turn against me and attack me”).

But though there is much here that is universal, this is (I think) not intended to be a universal but a very particular book — writing about the particular experience of being a black man in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some parts will be hard to read — for me, these parts included Coates’s rejection of Martin Luther King’s status as an icon and of the practices of nonviolent resistance. As a hardcore pacifist (an oxymoron, I know) I have, of course, admired King and those he worked with in the civil rights movement, but it was important for me to pause and think about how double-edged and dangerous it is for those of us in positions of power and privilege to recommend non-violent resistance as a strategy for the oppressed. If you commit to using only non-violent methods to defeat racism, does that make me feel safe while I enjoy the benefits of that racism, in a society built upon generations of violence?

As I said, there’s a lot here to think about. Many people are reading and talking about this book this summer, and they should be: this is a lyrical and thoughtful examination of issues that need to be examined. 

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In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

unlikelyeventIt may be hard to believe that three unrelated plane crashes could hit residential areas in the same town over a period of a few months, but that’s exactly what happened in New Jersey when Judy Blume was growing up, and she fictionalizes that incredibly real-life coincidence as the backdrop for her novel In the Unlikely Event. Though this is billed as one of Blume’s novels for adults, the main character throughout the novel is teenaged Miri Ammerman. Miri, along with the other teenagers in the novel, lives through the three crashes and the fear and uncertainty that descends on the community in the wake of the tragedies. For Miri and her friends the crashes are just one more puzzles piece to fit into the complex jigsaw of growing up, falling in love, coping with family and changing friendships. Perhaps this is marketed as an adult rather than a young-adult novel because we get a few point of view chapters from the perspective of adult characters, and in a framing story the adult Miri goes back to her hometown for a reunion and meets many of the people she knew as a teenager. But essentially, this is a standard coming of age story with the unusual twist of a series of improbable but unrelated disasters in the background.

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