If your knowledge of the French Revolution is like a blank canvas, then Graeme Fife will fill your mind with excessive imagery, lingering speeches and personal tragedies and horrors in his vivid account of the most violent yet principled and virtue premised stage of the revolution.
The narrative combines the main events of the new republic's ruling elite that drove the revolution (the various factions and main leaders) with many true stories of ordinary French people as they strove to either join, rebel against or just survive the Jacobin forwarded onslaught.
Without giving too much away, Fife establishes early on the factions that will eventually come to blows: the radical left of the Parisian Jacobin club headed by the cold Saint-Just, wheelchair bound Couthon and the 'incorruptible' young lawyer from Arras, Maximillien Robespierre ('The Mountain')against the moderate Girondists, most prominent of all- George Danton.
Robespierre is central to the story and it is hard not too feel a sense of tragedy and sorrow about the man who would ultimately become feared rather than loved. Orphaned at a young age, his mother passig away followed by his father leaving before dying alone in Bavaria, Robespierre wept as one of his most beloved birds, a handsome young pigeon was left out in the rain one night by his sister and died. All of this combined must have had a profound and imeasurable effect on him, and Fife's unspoken thinking on him suggests a Sociopathic moulding (love for animals and cold towards fellow human beings).
As I said there are plenty of real stories about those who survivied the Guillotine and those who did not. Fife has evidently researched not only the dramas of the Paris political elite as well as the hundreds of prison trasncripts and personal diaries and memoirs (quite a feet) but has learned a great deal about the country itslef. For instance he makes siginficant comments on the langauge variations ('oui' in the North, 'oc' in parts of the south) and how this plus geography and rural/urban divide alligned itself with the social and political polarity of the Republican Paris and the still royalist, devine-right defending peasants.
Overall, I cannot recommend Fife's work enough. While I have passed remark on what it does contain I think it is important to stress what it does not have. There is no constant excessive and flowery expressions, it reads well and flows without evidently diluting the content to do so, and while a 'nice neat moral of the story' is written it is done so with skill and with the actual events that happened, no matter how complex they are to do so.
A great read.