Friday, October 14, 2011
I first encountered Ken Follett's fiction when I read The Key to Rebecca, which I picked up in part because of the reference to my favorite Daphne DuMaurier novel. While I was familiar with his suspense novels, I kept having friends tell me I needed to read his historical novel Pillars of the Earth. My brother-in-law credits the book with his decision to pursue a building career. The sprawling tale follows a master builder who dreams of building a great cathedral--which he does--and follows a variety of characters from all social levels during the time period leading up to and including the death of Thomas Becket. He waited more than twenty years before following up with World Without End, set in that same cathedral city during the time of the plague.
Now Follett has embarked on what is to become (I hear) a series set in the twentieth century. The first, Fall of Giants, begins in a Welsh mining town, first introducing Billy Williams (Billy Twice) on his thirteenth birthday, his first day in the mines, then Earl Fitzherbert, who owns the mine, and his family. As in his earlier historical fiction, Follett introduces strong women characters--Billy's sister Ethel, a maid in the earl's home, and the earl's sister, Lady Maude, a strong-minded suffragette.
Other threads of the story follow a young German diplomat, who attended college with Fitz, an American working for President Wilson, and a pair of Russian brothers. Follett manages to show the conflicts that led to World War I through a variety of perspectives, and he continues those different viewpoints through the course of the war and the complications as the major world power dealt with the Armistice.
I've always known more about World War II than the first "war to end all wars," but after reading this book, I was able to see the attitudes after the way, particularly in Germany, that would eventually give rise to Nazi power.
Although he deals only slightly with the death of the Czar's family, I learned so much about the revolution leading up to and following the end of that reign. He also suggests that many of the aristocratic families feared social revolution in Great Britain as well.
Since Follett creates characters that draw my interest and empathy, as well as a number of others who were despicable or at least flagrantly self-absorbed, I can't wait for him to finish the next book.