Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Review - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Ken Follett is best known to some readers as the author of classic spy thrillers such as Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. To others, he’s better known as the writer of the mega-bestseller revolving around the construction of a cathedral in the Middle Ages – The Pillars of the Earth as well as its sequel, World Without End. Like The Pillars of the Earth, Follet’s latest book, Fall of Giants still weaves history and fiction, but this time the history is a little more recent and revolves around the gathering storm clouds that presage the beginning of WWI as well as the war, itself.

The first book in Follett’s “Century Trilogy,” Fall of Giants, which clocks in at nearly 1,000 pages (I found my hardcover copy difficult to lug around due to weight alone), opens on June 22, 1911. King George V is being crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey, while in Aberowen, Wales, the fictitious thirteen-year-old Billy Williams is quitting school on his birthday to begin a career in the coal mines. The book concludes in November 1923 in Munich as one character expresses relief that some upstart named Adolph Hitler has failed in his attempts at mayhem and is in jail.

Follett has chosen five fictional families – one Welsh, one English, one American, one German, and one Russian – to follow as WWI, the centerpiece of the novel, plays out on the world stage. Two of these families are British, one the poverty-stricken Welsh Williams family mentioned above, the other the wealthy English Fitzherberts, the owners of the mine in which Billy Williams goes to work. Maud Fitzherbert, arguably, along with Ethel Williams, Billy’s sister, are the principle female characters in Fall of Giants, and Maud, at least, epitomizes one of Follett’s secondary themes: women’s rights, especially the right to vote.

The non-British families include an American, Gus Dewar, the son of a US senator and an idealistic young man, who serves in both Woodrow Wilson’s White House as a presidential aide and later, in the trenches in France. Walter von Ulrich is an aristocratic German, whose ties to his own country are conflicted at best and suspect at worst. Then there’s Grigori and Lev Peshkov, orphaned St. Petersburg brothers who work in a locomotive factory and whose bitterness at the atrocities committed in the name of the czar cause one of them to pursue a life of crime in the US and the other to rise to a prominent position in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

Follett does a wonderful job intertwining his fictional and real life characters’ lives, with the help of the war, of course. We learn how the lives of the Welsh family mingle with the lives of the English earl. We learn how the sister of the English earl becomes involved with a Prussian nobleman. We learn how the American crosses paths with one of the Russians, the English earl, the earl’s sister, her German lover and President Woodrow Wilson. In fact, Follett has devoted six pages at the front of the book to the cast of 123 characters that populate Fall of Giants (twenty of them really lived), and that cast of characters runs the gamut from “King George V” to “Theo, a thug.” Besides intertwining his characters’ lives with seeming ease, Follett also knows how to mix the low-born and the highly-bred with great success, and this, of course, gives rise to his primary theme in Fall of Giants: the fact that the decadent aristocracy needed to move over and make way for the modern age.

I was a little disappointed that one of my favorite historical figures, a member of that “decadent aristocracy,” Czar Nicholas II, failed to make even one appearance in the book, but his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm does make a cameo or two. The “giants” of the title, the crowned heads of Europe, who are all thoroughly ensconced in their respective kingdoms in 1911, are gone by the book’s end, all save King George V.

Some of these characters were far easier for me to become involved with than others, but that’s to be expected in a book of this scope and length, and I responded much more positively to some of the set pieces than I did to others, also to be expected.

I realize Follett, if he’s going to follow these same five families through two more books, and I thoroughly like the idea of his doing so, had to create some heirs in the first book. However, Follett’s “bedroom scenes,” for me, at least, proved to be his least memorable. Follett, of course, is no romance writer. I understand that. I just wish he’d written fewer scenes of “romantic interlude.” I never was a romance reader and I cringe at passages like “Her love for Walter had awakened within her a sleeping lion of physical desire, a beast that was both stimulated and tormented by their stolen kisses and furtive fumbles." Or worse, “He dreaded the thought of a baby's head cruelly stretching the narrow passage he loved so much.” Oh, dear. Suffice it to say that despite the female characters’ pull toward women’s rights, they aren’t averse to love and romance and sex, and there are plenty of births in this book, certainly enough to sustain Book II of the trilogy.

The best scenes for me were the war scenes. In these, Follett really shines. The most harrowing set piece, for me, at least, occurred after the deadly slaughter at Somme at which the men and boys from entire English villages were wiped out in one fell swoop. On a day known as “Telegram Day,” the villagers and townspeople would stand outside their homes, hoping against hope that the boy on the bicycle who delivers the telegrams informing them of their loved ones’ death would – somehow, some way – pass them by. It was chilling reading about this. It was difficult going, not because of any awkwardness in Follett’s prose, but because he perhaps described it too vividly for any caring person not to flinch.

I’ve heard several people say they found the ending anticlimactic, that the buildup to the Bolshevik Revolution caused the book to bog down. I didn’t find this to be true at all. In fact, I loved reading the “Russian parts,” but yes, it is lengthy, and yes, I’ve always had a fondness for all things Russian, so I was probably bound to like them no matter what.

Of course, we know how this all ends. We know who wins the war and who doesn’t. We know what happens – in detail – to each of Follett’s “real life” historical characters. However, we keep reading because Follett has made us care about his fictional characters as well. The multiple storylines are all believable and they are all well balanced. I liked Maud a bit more than Ethel, while you may like Ethel a bit more than Maud. I found the Russians more interesting than the American family. You might not. It doesn’t matter. Follett has managed to make each character’s story suspenseful and he manages to keep us reading to the end of the book despite the fact that we know how history is going to write itself. Still, like Follett’s spy thrillers, Fall of Giants is primarily plot-driven rather than character-driven, and with Folltt, who excels at constructing tightly woven, suspenseful plots, this is a plus, not a minus.

It should be mentioned that Follett is no prose stylist, nor does he pretend to be. In fact, Follett, himself, calls his prose “transparent.” Some may see this as a fault. In the type of plot-driven books he writes, I think a transparent prose style is exactly what’s needed, and it’s more difficult to achieve than many non-writers might think. Sure, there are a few clich├ęs in this book, one or two missteps in the romantic set pieces, but that’s a mere quibble in a book of this size and scope. Overall, it’s finely written and very evocative of the early 20th century.

The best news, of course, is that the story doesn’t end here. Book II, which I believe is due out in 2012 and titled The Winter of the World, will follow the descendants of the five families introduced in Fall of Giants. If you’re like me, you can’t wait to see what’s in store for these people, and you’re already marking off the days on your calendar to its publication.


Recommended: Those who love “big books” and world history will probably love Fall of Giants. Those who prefer more introspective, character-driven books might not enjoy it quite so much. Then again, it just might make a wonderful change of pace.