Ken Follett, “Fall of Giants”

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?

French lookout in a trench near the Rhine, June 1917

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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7 Responses to Ken Follett, “Fall of Giants”

  1. Oh, what a shame! I also loved The Pillars of the Earth, but haven’t ventured further into his other works. Maybe I’ll stick with the second in the series of Pillars and read The World Without End instead!

    • carolwallace says:

      Well, let me know if you do. I was pretty disappointed with “Fall of Giants,” especially since it really did start very well. I think Follett must be under a lot of pressure to crank these things out, though, don’t you? It felt as if he hadn’t had time to really flesh it out.

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  3. christinasr says:

    I thought Pillars suffered from the ending as well. When the whole Thomas Beckett thing started, things went rapidly downhill. I had loved the book up till that point. Maybe he just don’t know quite how to finish things?

  4. carolwallace says:

    Maybe that’s it, Christina, though the early thrillers work really well. I’m sure ending a huge book like “Fall of Giants” or “Pillars” is much more of a challenge, though, and part of the issue is pacing — you can’t just crash into the ending or sprint to the finish. You have to sort of slow down, like the end of a big grand piece of music. Don’t you think?

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