Hilary Mantel's A place of greater safety was utterly gripping, despite being about eight hundred pages long, and I spent most of my time in France unable to put it down. It's a fictionalisation of the French revolution, following Camille Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre from early life to their various deaths by the guillotine. I thought this was an utterly fantastic novel. It's very political, and in fact the characters talk almost exclusively of politics, but they are incredibly vivid for all that. And despite following the three central figures from childhood to adulthood, she manages to avoid biographical clichés and cheap sentiment.
In fact, I really like Mantel's view of history: there's a sense of irresistible forces constantly pushing change (the hunger of the people; migration of the starving to Paris), but at the same time with the key events - like the storming of the Bastille - there's a sense of randomness and chaos. People know that something big is going to happen, but when it actually does happen it almost comes as a surprise, even for the people who are later seen as leaders. There's no inevitability to the storming of the Bastille, or even the beheading of Louis XVI: these things are symptoms of the greater historical forces at work. And the way she represents this can be very powerful, cutting from a discussion of politics in Danton's bourgeois home to a short separate paragraph:
Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.It's a very good representation of the way that material conditions force change, but when that change comes, it's difficult to predict exactly what it will be.
Despite the chilling depiction of the starving population, though, (the paragraph about the starving migrants who come from the country to Paris is genuinely spooky), the novel is actually very funny in parts. Camille Desmoulins in particular is very entertaining with a ridiculous love life and a sort of childish helplessness.