Ken Follett offers a long, flat take on the early 20th century

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: October 03, 2010

By Ken Follett

Dutton. 1,008 pp. $36


Reviewed by Desmond Ryan


Two decades ago, Ken Follett made an abrupt transition from thrillers to sprawling historical epics with Pillars of the Earth, which owed much of its popularity to its absorbing subject - the building of a medieval cathedral - and its setting in the relatively unmined 12th century.

Pillars of the Earth, which flamboyantly revived the old-fashioned miniseries when it was adapted for the small screen by Showtime last summer, and its 14th-century follow-up, World Without End, commanded a large and loyal following and expanded Follett's audience.

But with Fall of Giants, a massive multinational entwining of the fates of four families swept up in the passing of an old order and its entrenched assumptions and the barbaric carnage of the First World War, Follett ventures into an infinitely more competitive, crowded, and demanding arena.

The novels, art, histories, biographies, memoirs and poetry that have examined the seismic changes that overtook the world and set it on the bloody course of the last century are beyond number

Follett has granted himself the length - 1,000 pages - to address the period without bringing any particular depth or originality to what is essentially a formulaic exercise.

He is also constantly beleaguered by the necessity of conveying exposition and background to modern readers without clogging the flow of narrative. All too often, this yields extended scenes in which characters emerge as points of view or historical summation rather than credible people.

And so, an aristocratic British dinner party where King Edward VII is the guest of honor and the conversation turns to the precarious state of the political arena features such scintillating sallies as, "That part of the world which the British call the Balkans, has been part of the Ottoman domain for hundreds of years; but Ottoman rule has crumbled and now the Balkans are unstable."

We have the brilliant recent example of Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall to remind us how effortless and subtle shifts of perception and perspective can plunge us into another time and place. In Fall of Giants, we must instead plow through people actually saying, "Especially now that the aggressive Winston Churchill has gone. He never recovered from the catastrophe of the Dardanelles, which was his pet project."

Because Fall of Giants covers the tangled politics of Russia on the brink of revolution, Britain and Germany lurching toward Armageddon, and the response of President Woodrow Wilson and Americans of vehemently differing viewpoints to the crisis in Europe, the novel abounds in such inert tutorials.

Fall of Giants, which is the first volume of a promised trilogy covering the calamitous 20th century, is at its best when it is at ground level - either in the trenches of the Somme or in evoking the bitterness of working families caught up in the class warfare in Britain and Russia. Follett's scenes amid the dark and daily perils of a Welsh coal mine, the numbing hardships of the proletariat under the Tsar, and the struggle for women's suffrage are ably crafted.

However, large sections of Fall of Giants are devoted to the upper classes who - whatever their nationality - are a two-dimensional lot. Since they do most of the lecturing on the diplomatic climate, the sense of flatness is only compounded.

Follett says his next two offerings in this series will deal with the rise of Hitler and the different terrors of the Cold War. I hope he reappraises the crucial matter of how the vast research he has clearly accumulated for this project can be more plausibly conveyed. As it stands, even Follett fans are likely to prefer the nave of Kingsbridge Cathedral to the busy corridors of power in Fall of Giants.


Desmond Ryan is a retired Inquirer movie critic.

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