Over the years Ken Follett has established a reputation as a terrific story teller, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of his books. I’m a big fan of some of the early thrillers and I even enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth. I mean — a thousand pages about the construction of a medieval cathedral? Anybody who can make that into compelling narrative is really good at his job. So when two friends in a row recommended Fall of Giants, I was delighted. I had a cross-country plane trip to face, what could be better than Follett on the early 20th century?
It started really well, with a clever Welsh boy being sent down a coal mine in 1911. Follett’s technique isn’t inventive, but it’s effective: focus on a string of characters, each in a different walk of life, and let their tales interlock. So young miner Billy Williams’ sister is the housekeeper at the local aristocrat’s country house. Earl Fitzherbert, hosting King George V, is so impressed by her beauty and poise that he lusts after her. His Russian-princess wife, not so much. She’s inclined to think English servants are uppity. Bit by bit Follett introduces his other main characters: an appealing American egghead who’s a great admirer of Woodrow Wilson, a pair of St. Petersburg factory workers, a German aristocrat in the diplomatic corps. Fine. I’m not in this for literary innovation. But somewhere in the second 500 pages, the personal quality of these characters thinned out. They became what they always had potential to be — stock figures inserted into historical situations. The language got sloppier, more anachronistic (one man is afraid he won’t be able to “hack” battle and fears his men in the trenches will think he’s a “wimp”). And maybe some events, like infighting after the Russian Revolution, just can’t be dramatized. (If Hilary Mantel couldn’t do it for the French Revolution in A Place of Greater Safety, I’m not sure anybody can.) Yes, I did read to the end, but more out of curiosity than emotional involvement. And, you know what? It’s not like we don’t know what happened. Next up in Volume 2 of this trilogy? Da-da-da-dum…. dinner table scene in which the Beer Hall Putsch is mentioned. They’re going to have to fight that war without me.