Monday, 2 April 2012
Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett
I had seen the adverts on TV for the Channel 4 series and was quite interested in it, but never got around to watching it, I'm now on the lookout for the DVD set!
This book was first described to me as a soap opera with a cathedral being the main character, and that person was spot on. This is mainly set in a fictional town of Kingsbridge (there are several towns of that name in Britain but none in the location described) and it's surrounding areas. This is quite unfortunate for me as I really wanted to go visit this fictional cathedral!
Set in the 12th Century the prologue opens with the disastrous sinking of the White Ship, carrying King Henry I's only son, William along with a large entourage of the royal court. This death eventually threw the question of succession into dispute and led to years of civil war between two cousins, Stephen and Matilda, as the idea of Henry's daughter, Matilda, ruling was not yet accepted by the ruling lords and barons.
This is the background against which the story is set; very uncertain and the peasantry being at the mercy of lords and barons waging smaller wars against each other for land and power without fear of repercussion from the crown. After the prologue we are introduced to Tom Builder and his family and immediately we are shown that he is a man of principle - for himself and the people who work for him. This may not be the best thing, a peasant standing up to the son of an Earl, but it helps show the character of both Tom and the Earl's son William Hamleigh and introduces the reader to the way this novel is going to go.
'Pillars' then follows Tom through cities, towns and tragedy as he tries to find work to keep his family from starving, even almost risking his life over the family's pig. It is through this and through the eyes of other characters introduced that we get around to the building of Kingsbridge cathedral. This works for how the novel is set out and introduces the reader to the historical events taking place in the country, making sure we remember the more powerful forces affecting our characters' lives.
Follett introduces us to characters slowly and through chapters written in their own point of view, taking his time to weave all the separate stories together until you suddenly see it connect with a flash of realisation. This slow build up may seem tiresome at first and encourage you to put the book down and walk away but please don't as it builds up, connects together and I found the switch between the points of view as a good thing, it kept me reading through the slower parts.
With the obvious distinction between good and bad it is difficult for the reader to make their own mind up about the characters as Follett doesn't seem to believe in shades of grey too much, if a good person does something bad it is always justified and a bad person only does something good if it's an accidental repercussion of an attempt at a bad deed. Now, with a book like this, I don't mind that too much as the story itself allows this to flow into the background whilst the turbulent storylines and plot twists take centre stage. The characters are still padded out and made into real people and not completely predictable, although one or two characters do come close at times.
I was very interested in the building of the cathedral and it was made very obvious that Follett had done his research on this subject. It was described in a way that I found interesting and not patronizing or where I'm expected to already know the basics and just be shoved into the deep-end. I found myself visiting two cathedrals whilst I was reading the book and found it really helped me appreciate all the hard work of all the individuals that were working on these amazing buildings.
This book is definitely an epic and I would suggest putting aside a full week or two so that you can really get into the descriptions and character depths. It isn't the sort of thing you can pick up, flick through a couple of pages and then move on to do something else but it is well worth the time to pick up.
If you like historical fiction with a bit of cathedral architecture mixed in and you're looking for your next big read then this is the book for you. If you like soap opera style books that spreads over about 40/50 years and mainly focuses on a small group of people then this is also the book for you. I'm now waiting for the right time to buy the second book.