Signet, 2007 reprint of 1989 original, 983 pages, C$8.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-451-16689-0
This isn’t quite an application of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (“the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information– often an unfamiliar word or name– and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.” to quote damninteresting.com), but once I started hearing about Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, I started hearing about it everywhere. Idle musing on which “big thick paperback” to carry along with me on a two-week trip to Australasia netted me two independent recommendations for the novel. Then the TV miniseries went on the air, which probably in turn explained why I spotted another airplane passenger reading it in the next row. For a book I hadn’t noticed until a few weeks ago, that’s quite a series of coincidences.
Oh, I did know about Ken Follett –but until then, I had him pigeonholed as a writer of not-overly-interesting suspense novels, many of them featuring characters for which I couldn’t feel any sympathy. But The Pillars of the Earth is something very different: An epic historical novel taking place from 1123 to 1174, featuring a large cast of characters all somehow involved in the building of a massive cathedral. Not my usual kind of novel either but hey –it was big, thick and looked as if it could keep me interested during no less than eight plane flights in seventeen days.
The risk, of course, was that the novel would prove to be a dud, and that it would fall from my hands after a few dozen pages. Then I’d be stuck with it for a seemingly endless time.
I shouldn’t have worried: From the very first pages, Follett does an exemplary job at establishing his characters and throwing them into difficult situations. In the first chapter, in fact, one of our characters has his most precious property stolen, kills the thief, loses his wife in childbirth, abandons his child, sleeps with another woman and discovers that his newborn has been rescued by a monastery. This is hard-core shock plotting, and it works unbelievably well at establishing the tone of the novel: The Pillars of the Earth is epic, harsh and pulls no punches in its depiction of twelfth-century England. There’s as much violence as there are sex scenes –and a number of those sex scenes are violent as well.
As with many good historical novels, The Pillars of the Earth is a mixture of modern values and historical attitudes. The strong female characters clash with the restrictions of the era, the powerful church routinely interferes with the weak kings (it’s not as if there’s just one of them either) and a number of the things we take for granted (say, the rule of law) are still hundreds of years in the future. Follett gives a good idea of how it must have been to live at the time, and the result is absorbing from beginning to end.
As far as plotting is concerned, it’s a mixture of dastardly villains, pure-hearted heroes, sins committed for pure reasons and spiteful accidents. Many characters die (some of them unexpectedly), but pretty much everyone gets what they deserve in the end. The cathedral around which the plot revolves is built, abandoned and rebuilt more often than you’d think. There are some coincidence-dependent plot junctions, but they don’t feel as arbitrary as predestined. The pacing only flags during the last section of the novel, which tends to diffuse itself rather than end on a high note once the plot-lines are resolved.
But it all amounts to an extraordinary reading experience, indeed one that is only available from big thick books such as this one: The Pillars of the Earth is an epic in the unadulterated sense of the term, and readers will be able to be comfortably absorbed by the novel until it ends. It lives up to my friends’ hype as an amazing novel… and one that’s well worth taking along on a lengthy trip.
For Follett, it also represented a radical shift from his more familiar cookie-cutter thrillers, and one that he still seems to enjoy: The Pillars of the Earth was only followed by sort-of-sequel World without End in 2007, but Follett now seems to be in the middle of writing a trilogy of historical novels covering the entire twentieth century. It’s heartening to see an author taking such a chance and being rewarded for it: Another proof, if any other was needed, that it’s a good idea to write whatever you want and worry about market expectations later.