Some angles on World War I, told in a simple and human way.
This is the first Follett book I’ve read since I read The Key to Rebecca in about 1979. I enjoyed The Key to Rebecca, even as I found it a little bit “comic book” in its feel, perhaps in keeping with the mood of the time, when Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were dominating popular culture. Regarding myself as a serious writer, I didn’t seek out any more books by Ken Follett.
Until now. At work on an epic of my own, I started to cast about for other writers’ works that might demonstrate an epic sensibility; and in my search I came across Fall of Giants, volume 1 of the (possibly) epic Century Trilogy. I downloaded the sample to my Kindle, and, finding myself enjoying the story at the end of that, I plunked down the Cdn$11.78 to read the rest (you’re welcome, Ken).
Before I started this review I checked the existing reviews on Amazon.com, of which there are 2,966 as I type these words. The average rating is 4.0 out of 5 stars, but I was curious to see that a sizable minority, 391 people, had given the book only one star. When I looked at some of those reviews, I found a number of people excoriating the book due what they regarded as its contrived, unbelievable plot and its oversimplified characters. Many of these reviewers were self-professed Follett fans, and many affirmed how well they had enjoyed his The Pillars of the Earth. My takeaway: hell hath no fury like a disappointed reader.
I understand and to some extent share their criticism, although I think they go much too far (one star?). The author has set out to tell the story of World War I through its effects on the lives of eight (by my count) main characters, whose lives are all bound up with the war in different ways in different countries. Their paths cross and their lives intersect, and some of these connections, looked at objectively, do seem fortuitous indeed. I noted this, but was not really bothered by it, since I believe that coincidence does not mar a story unless it is used as a device to get a character out of trouble. I don’t recall that the author did this with any of his fortuitous meetings between characters; indeed, Follett is very good at the storytelling technique of getting his characters deeper into trouble. Rather, the meetings between characters serve here to keep them connected and to keep the story strands braided together. In my own life I have had a number of meetings with people that struck me as being stunning coincidences, so such things do happen.
As for the other main complaint, that the characters are too flat and too familiar, here too I understand what they mean, for the characters are drawn with bold strokes and do tend to have a “stock” feeling: the arrogant British aristocrat Fitzherbert, his pert Welsh housekeeper Ethel, the idealistic American political aide Gus, the urbane German diplomat Walter, Fitzherbert’s suffragette sister Maud, and so on. But here too I feel the criticism is much overdone. For one thing, with so many characters, you can’t have too much complexity in any one character; there isn’t room for it. The complexity arises from their interrelationship. It’s more important that the characters have different personas and different objectives, and this the author achieves very well.
But I would argue that these characters do have complexity in at least one sense: several of them change throughout the course of the story, and this is a mark of high-quality character writing. Ethel, the housekeeper, changes under pressure as she is forced from service and has to struggle on her own in London, where she develops a political consciousness. I found this very lifelike. And, interestingly, other characters resist change, and find themselves instead weathering the consequences of their refusal to adapt. A roguish Russian character, Lev, continually leaps from frying pan to fire and back to frying pan again, always using the charm and tricks that have worked for him since childhood. He occasionally feels a pang at being so feckless, but that’s as deep as his self-reflection goes.
The characters do at times seem a bit comic-book or a bit network-television, but the story has the pulse of life. I was interested to see how the author handles sex between his characters (and there are three or four love stories among the plots); he neither indulges it nor shies away from it. He sees it as part of life and narrates it as such. When Ethel finds herself embroiled in an affair while in service, she discovers that in her continual desire she is wetting her undergarments and has to wash them several times a day. She takes it in stride and so do we.
The most important question for me in reading this or any story is, do I feel anything as I read? And here the answer is yes. I identified with the characters’ romantic yearnings; I identified with their political arguments as the world sleepwalked its way into a conflagration. In a kangaroo court-martial toward the end of the book I felt a strong sense of outraged justice. All of these facts mean one thing: I was involved.
If I had to state what I thought was the main flaw of the book, I would point to the narration. Follett’s prose is simple and clear, but I find that he has a habit of spoon-feeding the reader information that should remain in the subtext of a scene. Hunting for a random example, I come across this near the middle of the book:
Walter had made it obvious he wanted to get away. The reason was that he needed to spend a quiet hour thinking about Gus Dewar’s message. But he had been discourteous to his mother, whom he loved, and now he set about making amends.
This kind of explanation belongs more in an outline than in the finished text. It’s as though the author wants to show the action and explain it as well, perhaps because he’s not confident that he’s presented it well enough, or maybe so that the dullest-witted readers won’t miss anything. But there is a price: this deprives the rest of the audience of the pleasure of discovering the subtext for themselvesone of the greatest pleasures in reading. The subtextual explanation should be what arises in the reader’s own mind as a result of the action he has been shown in the text.
So that’s my main criticism. Apart from that, my actions speak loudest: I finished the book, which is a long one, and I cared about what happened to the characters. Ken Follett describes hmself as a “master storyteller” on his own website, and, from what I’ve read, he has earned the title. I’m sure I won’t let another 35 years elapse before I try another one of his books.