Historical Fiction at its Finest!
(A Book review of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)
First introduced to me as a 2007 book selection by the Oprah Book Club, The Pillars of the Earth remains of one Ken Follett’s bestselling books (so far) with an estimated 100, 000 copies sold every year in the United States alone, and is one of his works whom hordes of fans consider as his towering masterpiece. The novel has recently received worldwide recognition and has topped the charts in Italy, England and Germany for six years in a row even though the book was first published in 1989. It was also lately adapted as an eight-hour television miniseries by Tandem Communications along with Muse Entertainment and was nominated for seven Emmy Awards.
It took Ken Follett almost ten years to finish creating this captivating novel borne out of his curiosity and fascination with Gothic cathedrals. Set in the middle of 12th century England, during the Dark Age, the whole story revolves around one basic theme: the power and corruption of Church and State. The central plot of The Pillars of the Earth is the construction of a new church in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge. However, the story is really about the problems between people building a magnificent cathedral and those who stands in their way and wants to demolish it.
Having had success writing spy thrillers, Follett does a one-eighty with the publication of The Pillars of the Earth; it’s different from what he’s written before, that’s why his publisher met it with a bit of apprehension, not to mention it’s thousand pages long. Truly, different is a word I would label it with, for it’s like encountering a very unusual Ken Follett in its pages. As you start the prologue, dazzled by the narration’s imagery as if it’s happening right in front of your eyes, it would suck you absolutely in and without even noticing it you’ve work your way through this 973 page tome.
Seeing the actual book for the first time, every reader — seasoned and novice alike — will balk at its thickness, mulling over if it’s worth a damn, worth the time to read; I know, for I, too, had those thoughts initially. Yet let me guarantee at this point Gentle Readers that it’s worth the effort, for the book delivers nothing but SHEER READING EXPERIENCE!
Simply put, reading it is so addictive you wouldn’t want at some moments to stop.
What lies at the heart of the novel is its pure narrative drive starting off with a mystery that hooks the readers immediately which hovers over the lives of the book’s populous array of beguiling characters well-defined and distinguishable from the next. The true feat, however, is the way Follett takes real historical context and applies almost real characters that represents every class of citizens in twelfth-century England spanning over five decades of their lives. From lowest monk and servant right up to the highest member of the British aristocracy and monarchy, Follett provides a unique physical description for each. Names are specific to characters, as are their specific mannerisms and traits. This is a true example of master novel writing as the author had to place his main characters among at least four distinct families that exist alongside a plethora of conforming and nonconforming monks and priests, all living under the unstable rule of competing heirs of the British throne during the time.
As powerful as the characters were, the cathedral was the center of their world. It drew them all to it. It became something akin to an entity in the book — not a living or breathing thing — but with a strong, looming presence over the characters and in the plot that the reader ultimately wish for its triumph over the odds. The novel is also an interesting look at why grand churches and cathedrals were built during those times: for in it depends the literal survival of many and the foundation of a thriving and religious community. The author did a splendid job as well giving the reader a peek into ways of life different from ours today.
Apart from the period in which the story is set — I was always mesmerized by castles and the Middle Ages — there were so many things that drew me deeply into the story: the full spectrum of human emotion it contains (love, hate, loyalty, treachery, despair, hope); the amazing detail to all of these senses, the fabric that make every day life, to bring in Europe in the turbulent twelfth century AD vividly to being; and the intentionally blurred boundaries between fact and fiction — all these breathes life into history. It carries with it historical truth that describes twelfth-century England extraordinarily well and in a way that is dramatic. I find it quite amusing that it seems in historical fiction, facts are used to give a varnish of reality to the plot. Yet it feels that the opposite held true in The Pillars of the Earth — the construction of the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral and the stories of the people revolving around it feels more like dressing to present the intriguing history of the period (both in politics and in architecture).
Follett’s use of plain language makes it, in itself, refreshing and extraordinary. By not distracting his readers with unfamiliar medieval English dialogue — and in some ways shunning being pedantic and pretentious — he allows the reader to be fully carried along by the characters and their daily challenges. The use of simple language fully engages the reader in the machinations — financial, architectural, and spiritual — of building a majestic cathedral. I would never have it any other way.
In The Pillars of the Earth Ken Follett has built a truly immense literary masterpiece. Slip heartily between the covers of this slab of a book and you’ll find a little bit of everything you might enjoy in a great story; each piece painstakingly crafted, thoughtfully pieced together with sweat, passion and skilled, solid writing masonry, inextricably bound by a mortar of intricate, accurate detail. The end result is a masterpiece of epic proportion to make the mind’s eye weep in admiration. Like the cathedrals in Wells and Salisbury, Kingsbridge Cathedral stands tall, never to be forgotten in the field of imagination of those who read it.
It’s historical fiction at its finest!