"To-day they guillotined Danton; and with him died the fragile dream of Clemency, and all my hopes and prayers."
So opens Susanne Alleyn's debut novel A Far Better Rest, described on the back cover as "A reimagining of Charles Dickens' classic novel A Tale of Two Cities." In the hands of a less skilled writer, this book could have been a disappointment or worse, yet Ms. Alleyn succeeds admirably.
Told from Sydney Carton's point of view in a journal written during the weeks before his execution, the novel tells the same story as the Dickens original, but on an intensely more personal level. One by one Carton introduces the reader to the main characters as he reflects on his life's journey from Georgian England to Revolutionary Paris.
This novel is engrossing right from the start. The author uses a slightly archaic form of English that is easy to understand and read, yet evocative of the turbulent period in which the story is set.
Though we only see the characters through Carton's eyes, they are nevertheless well-rounded and thoroughly captivating. Of special interest to this reviewer were the brief glimpses of Charlotte Corday and her eventual victim, Jean-Paul Marat. Meeting these and other historical figures in such an informal setting was an added pleasure. Among the most appealing of the fictional characters were Carton's friend Molly, Darnay's daughter Lucie-Anne and Darnay's cousin, Eléonore. They lived, breathed and touched the heart.
As for setting, Ms Alleyn brings the period to life, especially those scenes set on the streets of Paris during the key events of the Revolution such as the attack on the Bastille and the preparations for the Festival of Federation. The readers sees, hears and smells the past and is, in effect, transported back in time.
I highly recommend A Far Better Rest, not only for fans of Dickens wanting to see the story told in a different way, but for anyone interested in the French Revolution and how it affected the lives of so many people. Though literary in nature, this novel appeals to the heart and soul and left this reader haunted by its wonderful characters, most notably its hero, Sydney Carton.
This review first appeared in the August 2000 issue of The Historical Novels review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002