© 2000 Susanne Alleyn
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is the story of a family beset by revolution. Regarded as a classic of western literature, the novel warns against the dangers of Revolution and celebrates individual self-sacrifice, unpredictably embodied by the figure of Sydney Carton, who rouses himself from a drunken slumber to save a man’s life, returns to his rest, and rises once more at the novel’s end to save an innocent man from the guillotine’s murderous wrath. A Far Better Rest is Carton’s story, told through his eyes -- and an excellent complement to the classic, I might add.
At first the novel did not too much impress me: its cover and opening chapters made me suspect I was in for a period romance instead of a ‘proper’ historical novel. This, I’m happy to report, was a misjudgment on my part. While romance is inevitable -- Carton’s enduring love for Lucie Manette drives him throughout the plot, here as in Dickens’ original -- this is not a bodice-ripper. Indeed, those bodices which are mentioned remain firmly fastened. Though we see inside Carton’s soul, Alleyn does not make her readers bedroom voyeurs. Instead, Alleyn focuses on what love drives Carton to do. Inspired by Lucie’s faith in him, and her simple goodness, Carton determines to recall himself to life and travels to France, where he finds himself in the middle of a Revolution -- a revolution that will, as it continues to mold France’s destiny, force Carton and others to choose their own paths. Carton is continually buffeted by fate, but seeks redemption if only to justify Lucie and others’ faith in him. Lucie is not his only motivation: having grown as a character, Carton only learns of the Mannettes’ presence in Paris in the midst of a personal quest.
Any novel inspired by A Tale of Two Cities cannot very well avoid the Revolution, but Carton’s place in the relative thick of things gives the reader a personal view of the chaos that began to unfold after the First Republic found itself at war with a continent full of adversaries and ruled by a council of ruthless crusaders determined to preserve their gains at all costs. Carton finds in the Republican struggle something to live for, but his hopes are dashed when the Revolution, "like Saturn, eats its own children". Alleyn evidently knows the period quite well, and displays an impressive amount of historical detail. (She even attaches a bibliography -- not something I see in a lot of historical fiction.) This is reflected in the style of the narrative, for Carton-as-narrator employs some older spelling variations ("connexion"), capitalizes random Nouns within sentences, and O! uses period abbreviations, tho' they run the gauntlet between being distracting and somewhat immersive. Alleyn or her editor's choice of font was also well done -- conveying an 18th century feel. The only truly distracting stylistic choice (for me) was Carton's self-censorship: words deemed vulgar are marred by underscores, so damned becomes d___ed and bollocks b_ll_cks. The reader knows d___ed well what's being said, but 'walking through' the underscores tends to slow down the book's pace.
Speaking of pace, the book turned into a page-turner after a slow start. The beginning of the book is its weakest -- there's a forced scene in which Carton meets two future revolutionaries while studying in France, one that has no function other than to establish a prior relationship between the boys for when they mature into men destined to lead France from monarchy to Republicanism. The political elements make the book a sort of thriller, and Alleyn's depiction of Carton's relationships with Darton, Lucie, and a third character, coupled with his masterful character growth, created in this book book an absolute winner for me -- one I'd recommend without reserve. Just as Carton redeemed himself, so will his "self-written" account redeem the story of A Tale of Two Cities for those who think it too florid, dense, or inaccurate -- for Alleyn thinks Dickens' exaggerated account of the revolution a blot on his reputation and attempts to portray it more fairly here. She's an author who takes her history seriously.