The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Folltett

5 Dec

Contrary to my habit, there will be some spoilers within this review—reader, beware. Oh, and I got the book as a gift from my beloved, if anyone cares.

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

This mammoth work of fiction is my very first exposure to Mr Follett’s writing—late as ever, aren’t I? Anyway, considering the length of this novel—close to a thousand pages, nacht!—the back cover blurb is woefully inadequate, in my opinion:

As a new age dawns in England’s twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal. It is in this rich tapestry, where kings and queens are corrupt, that the common man shows eternal promise—and one majestic creation will bond them forever.

The first thing I need to get off of my chest is that I am a bit sorry I made the re-read a relatively negative experience for my beloved Issek. Perhaps it was the fact that reading out loud made it easier to catch all the annoying aspects of the writing, or perhaps it is my annoying—if lovable, ahem—ability to retain odd bits of the narrative for hundreds of pages. Either way, I spent more time that it’s probably seemly pointing out my issues to him.

Sorry, love!

No, really, I’m sorry. See?

*ahem*

Please note, though, that I liked the book. Mind, I don’t think I’m anxious to start on a re-read just now—did I mention it’s 983 pages long?—but before a hundred pages were done I was well and truly caught, intrigued by both the individual characters and their stories and by the historical setting.

In most historical fiction, facts are used to give a varnish of reality to the fiction. In The Pillars of the Earth it feels as if the opposite held true—the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral and the stories of the people whose lives revolve around it, feel more like dressing to present the fascinating history of the period (both in politics and in architecture).

As most periods of upheaval in history, it was a most interesting time (as the Chinese curse would say), and I feel that Mr Follett captured the essence of the times very well, particularly as it pertains ordinary people—the farmers, the merchants, the craftsmen.

Then again, this is truly a historical saga of the ‘80s. In my notes I see that up to page 77 I was still looking for a main character, yet not much caring that there seemed not to be one. There is a lot of detail, a number of small incidents that seem to contribute nothing to any particular storyline. It is as if the narrative meandered around without a destination. But the times these characters live in come vividly alive with every scene. The cold, the hunger, the fear, the tenuous peace and fragile prosperity.

Interestingly, the narrative voice is mostly distant—not necessarily dry but neither is it riveting. Even when narrating from a specific character’s point of view, it’s still distant and detached. Regarding the meandering narrative, we come to realize that there is an overarching plot, and we see threads of it from different characters’ perspectives, but for a good while the connections between these are not apparent, making the novel seem a bit like a collection of unrelated short side stories.

There are a number of main characters whose personalities are either appealing or… well, not so much, but in general consistently portrayed. Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh, for example. Two of the villains of the piece, their actions and feelings—insofar as the reader is privy to them—are consistent with who they are said to be. So are Tom Builder, Father Philip and his brother Francis, Jack, his mother Ellen (called the witch), etc.

In fact, the characters that are well done, are really well done—even though I still don’t consider characterization to be Mr Follett’s greatest writing skill. Just to pick three, I would like to say that Tom Builder, Father Philip and, later in the novel, Jack, are great characters. Their actions and reactions to events and people around them are consistent with their personalities, their upbringing, the circumstances. Those actions and reactions are not simply written to move the story forward, but fit in with what we have seen of each of them before.

To a lesser degree, this is true of most of the other characters with significant page space. The most glaring exception would be Aliana.

(Warning: really slight spoilers ahead, as both the incidents mentioned come relatively early in the narrative)

Aliana is alternatively TSTL (doesn’t realize a whore is taking her and Richard to her madam until it’s spelled out—graphically—to her) and incredibly intuitive (she knows, pretty much on sight, that the master fuller—cloth maker—is the kind of man who needs to show constantly how much smarter than everyone else he is). My main problem is that she doesn’t seem to get over this dichotomy until very very late in the story, which feels jarring to me.

Something that I realized reading The Pillars of the Earth is that, had I not known the author was a male, I would have thought it written by a man regardless of the name on the spine. (Warning: general spoilage ahead)

As I mentioned a while back, there is a rape scene relatively early in the story that is… well, both graphic and chilling. Mind, this is not the first rape scene I’ve ever read, and I’m sure it’s not the last I will read. What made it stick with me (to the point of feeling physically ill) was not only that it’s told from the rapist’s point of view (as are all the subsequent rape scenes in the story—yes, plural there). I think it’s probably a combination of the character being okay with it and the omniscient, detached narrator. There is a horrible sense of inevitability and what feels like… rightness. Yes, rightness. As if the reader is expected to feel that yes, rape is horrible and criminal but hey, it happens; let’s move on, shall we?

Only this reader found it really hard to move on from there.

And yet, my main problem with the novel is the repetition. You know why this book is almost a thousand pages long? Because things are repeated again and again and again—at one point character A says to characters B and C, “They’ve reached an agreement” and proceeds to explain. Three pages later, character B says to character D, “They’ve reached an agreement” and explains, word by word, what character A said. A page after that, character D explains to a crowd that (yes, you guessed it), “They’ve reached an agreement” and (once more, with feeling!) goes on to explain the thing word. By. Word.

While I hit my head (repeatedly) on the desk.

A slightly smaller source of annoyance for me was the fluctuating age differences between characters and incidents. Sometimes Aliana is four and sometimes only three years older than her brother; or a character would age five years while others would age six. Given my slightly anal nature, those inconsistencies yanked me out of the story almost as often as the repetitions (and given the volume of repetitions, that’s saying something).

With all of this, you might be thinking that I couldn’t have possibly enjoyed the novel, even though I’ve said I did. But I did enjoy the novel, quite a bit in fact. I’m not quite sure how it is so, though I think most of it should be attributed to the history in the novel, but The Pillars of the Earth gets a full 8 out of 10 from me.

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