Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This is a book of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Tragedy followed by triumph, followed by tragedy, followed by triumph. Set in southern England between the years 1123 – 1174, this is a piece of historical fiction that nestles itself nicely into the fabric of real-life events. It is a period of anarchy between the reign of King Henry I and King Henry II, and if you are knowledgeable about this period, some of the story might be spoiled, particularly at the end where the story dovetails with famous historical events.

The story is about a handful of people: A destitute mason who seeks to build a cathedral, a kindly monk struggling to make the world a better place, a woman believed to be a witch, a young brother and sister—once privileged nobles—now destitute, a cruel and vindictive earl, an odd, but brilliant boy and a power-hungry bishop. The novel follows the course of these lives through success and failure revealing how they intermingle with surprising effects.


Pillars of the Earth is an extremely enjoyable read. It begins with a likable character and instant action that provides firm footing. The story is quite believable and well devised with one character leading to the next and back again in a wonderful weave that is masterful. Plot changes are not easily anticipated providing moments of surprise. Antagonists are well developed and presented so well you want to see them dead. Protagonists are so poignant, and their trials so terrible, they can tug at a reader’s emotions. The vicissitudes of the events keep it interesting throughout and the end is satisfying as each lingering plot point is neatly tied up in eloquent and often unexpected ways.

The sweeping drama, the anguish and joys of simple people, remind me of the works of Victor Hugo, only much lighter and easier to read.

It is too long. While length is not a detriment in general, it is here, as the novel feels artificially drawn out. It is not that it has too many words, Ken Follett writes in a simple, easy to read style. Rather, the story itself is too long. Characters (and readers) endure catastrophes and yet succeed in overcoming them only to suffer another, and another and another. Climax follows anti-climax over and over becoming too repetitive. The book has the feel of two, three or four books jammed together and rushed through with a thin narrative style.

In addition, Mr. Follett has an irritating habit of explaining events after they have occurred. Many pages are devoted to rehashing past events. He also has a rare tendency to speak to the reader, thinly veiling this as a character’s thoughts that always feel out of place when it happens. In one instance, when a woman is threatened with rape she reflects philosophically on the rapist’s motivations.

I can’t help but feel that if the novel’s plot had been pruned, or extended over more than one book it would have proven more powerful. It might also have allowed the author to spend more time enriching scenes that might have brought the events and character’s to life more vividly. As it is, the story has an odd distance, as if it is a tale being told to you rather than a story you are witnessing first hand. This, I suspect, might put off impatient readers. Nevertheless, the book is wonderful. The plot is so strong and well conceived, it more than makes up for these small annoyances and readers who stick with it will be swept up.

I would suggest The Pillars of the Earth to anyone who reads. (although not appropriate for younger readers due to some graphic sexual scenes) It has enough historical fact to appeal to non-fiction readers, and an outstanding story filled with romance, sex, warfare, religion, kindness, hatred, mystery and betrayal. Few will be disappointed with this novel.

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