The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I thought I had previously read one of Follett’s novels. I thought it was The Falcon and the Snowman, but that book was written by somebody else. Maybe I read The Eye of the Needle. I was in high school, decades ago now. It may be telling that I cannot recall enough of the book to determine to which book my wisps of recollection belong. Perhaps, after all, the book I remember was not Follett’s. If only I had blogged back then…..

There are many types of books in the world, but let’s pretend there are two. In one category, we have books that are a delight because “the characters are easy to love or hate”. In the other, are the books I tend to love. This book belongs in the former category. If not knowing within a page of meeting a character whether you should love that character or hate them is an irritating distraction for you, then this is your book. (The quote, by the way, is not from this novel, but a close paraphrase of someone’s description of a book they loved and which I did not. Our different reactions made sense to me after reading their reason for loving the book. Digressions are the hobgoblins of busy bloggers. I move on.)

Or, we can pretend the two categories are different. In one, a character who gets stabbed with a knife might “scream[] like a stuck pig.” In the other, are the books I tend to love. Perhaps, the prose is more pleasing if you have not actually heard a stuck pig. I think not, however. My real problem is that the sentence is, basically, “a stuck man screamed like a stuck pig” as getting “stuck”, in the pig context, is to be stabbed by a knife. The beauty of the symmetry is lost on me.

But those categories are so arbitrary. It is more helpful, perhaps, if I describe some of the novel’s good qualities. It is very long and, therefore, thick and, therefore, potentially useful for many things in addition to reading. It was a bestseller and, according to a BBC survey in 2003, is the 33rd most beloved book in Britain. Oprah likes it too. There are lots of characters to love and lots of characters to hate. Did I mention it is easy to tell them apart? So, there’s that.

At least one negative should be mentioned, to be fair. There is a sequel with the terrifying title World Without End. I think I said the novel is “very long.” The copy I have is 973 pages and a couple of months long.

While purportedly historical fiction, the novel is really a thriller which, coincidentally, is Follett’s forte. The prologue is set in England in 1123. There is a hanging attended by a knight, a monk, and a priest. The priest says to the knight….kidding. No, it is actually a gripping opening which ends with a headless cock running around “in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.” All the principal characters involved are later important. Follett knots his yarn well. If only he could write, that would be something. Well, if he could write and if trusted his readers a bit more, that would be something. His lack of trust in his readers shows in two ways. One, the characters are exceptionally very easy to categorize as “love them” or “hate them”, though, to make it more fun, you can try loving the hateful ones and hating the lovable ones. In that case, it has a tragic ending. The other way he does not trust his readers (or perhaps himself…and maybe he has a point) is that he often needs to explain things which really would be better shown.

I should expound upon the writing if I intend to be ungracious about it. Aside from stuck pigs, there are moments like this involving a starving family and an asshole:

”Suppose I give you money for food,” William said to the builder, to tantalize him.

“I’ll accept it gratefully,” the man said, although William could tell it hurt him to be subservient.

“I’m not talking about a gift. I’ll buy your woman.”

The woman herself spoke. “I’m not for sale, boy.”

Her scorn was well directed, and William was angered.

I shit you not.

If someone can tell me in the comments what that last sentence even means, I will be grateful. But look at the first sentence. We already know both (a) that the family is starving and (b) that William is an asshole. Shouldn’t the author be able to assume that his readers will know that an asshole offering money for food to a starving man is probably just being an asshole? But Follet tells us that William made the offer to “tantalize” the starving man, in case we missed it. In a much shorter book, maybe that would not become irritating, or maybe it would. It’s hard to tell.

I am being altogether too negative though. One of our young heros-to-be enjoys playing chess. You may know, I also enjoy playing chess. Of course, he “win[s] them all.” Perhaps, there is another way to show the boy is intelligent and that he enjoys chess. I am being unreasonable. If a character is going to play chess and be a hero, he ought to play well. Really well.

There is a nice structure to the novel. The 1123 prologue, as I mentioned, is fairly gripping. The main body of the story begins twelve years later with a fresh (so it seems) slate of characters. It may be a spoiler to say this, but any character worth loving or hating will appear more than once, often many times, often you will have least expected their reappearance a hundred or so pages before they do reappear, by which time you will have expected it. Somehow, it still is mildly satisfying. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when you are really jonesing for a steak and cheese. It gets the job done, but if the timing had been better….

I think it is my mood. The book is much better than I am making it out to be. However, I have managed to convey the novel’s basic type. I should add that, despite the shortcoming I have identified, Follet is a bestselling thriller-writer for a reason. There are loads of characters and you will definitely be able to find one of the type you might imagine yourself to be, particularly if you are a man. The good men are sometimes ugly. The good women, never. The good women are often raped. The good men, never. Perhaps there is a bit of misogyny, but not too much for Oprah.

If you have not visited any European cathedrals, which would be my position, you likely will want to after reading this book. Follett clearly enjoyed researching cathedrals and cathedral building for this book. The cathedral in the book is fictional rather than historical, as is the town and most of the characters. Historical events sort of play a role, but are altered to fit the plot. Most interesting is the way Follett has weaved an alternate history that begins with the sinking of the White Ship and, largely, ends with the murder of Thomas Becket. Follett has filled the space between these two events with a tale that spirals from the aspirations of Tom Builder to that final assasination. I cannot really say too much more about the success of the plot without spoiling the good thing about this novel which is the story. And, so, I won’t.

20 Responses to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  1. Oh Kerry, now you have really made me laugh. In some ways my current read warrants a similar review … not the same but similar … wish I’d thought of writing it like this!

    Anyhow, I heard Ken Follett interviewed the other day as the best selling author of all time (or somesuch). He’s even beaten out JK Rowling they said! It made me think I should read him – as I never have, and had never intended to – but you have cured me of that potential affliction (hmm…can you be cured of something that’s only potential?). I’ll read things in my TBR pile instead.

    • Kerry says:

      I heard someone the other day described as a “good plotter”. That is a good description for Follett. If that doesn’t excite you, you are wise to move along. But, I do want to say, while this is not a book I would have chosen for myself, I am pleased to have read it. Not because of its significance or anything like that, but because Follett is a good study in plotting. He does a great job of swirling his characters around at high speed so that they are constantly bumping into each other in (in the long view) unpredictable ways. I would not recommend this book for you, though, Whispering. I would emphatically not recommend the sequel for me.

      I am glad to have made you laugh. My goal has been met.

  2. Steph says:

    Ooof. This one really sounds like it fell flat. I had no real interest in reading it prior to your review, but now I definitely don’t want to read it. Sounds like a bloated Dan Brown novel, which certainly doesn’t appeal.

  3. Teresa says:

    This review cracked me up. I really didn’t like this novel much. The characterizations were terrible and, as you say, so obvious. Still, the story was entertaining enough that it would have been sort of trashy-awesome at half the length. And the cathedral-building stuff was fascinating. But most of it, especially the frequent and detailed descriptions of rape and rape fantasies were over the top.

    • Kerry says:

      I am glad you enjoyed the review, Teresa. And thanks for taking the time to say so.

      I absolutely agree with you that the story “was entertaining enough that it would have been sort of trashy-awesome at half the length”. Its entertainment value could not sustain 973 pages.

  4. Hahahaha, good stuff. I shit you not. Cheers.

  5. Follett has never made my list of plot-driven doorstopper writers (yes, I do have one — we all have our weaknesses). Your review convinces me of the wisdom of my decision.

  6. […] a humorous review of an unsubtle book, do read Kerry, aka Hungry Like the Wolf, on Ken Follett’s The pillars of the […]

  7. pburt says:

    A friend of mine urged me to read this last year and I managed to get through it. I have no desire to read the sequel at all (even though she is urging me to do so). My feeling is if you like long, convoluted plots (and there is nothing wrong it that) and also have a desire to escape into another world, then you will like this book. If you like tight writing or even some interior development then it isn’t for you.

    • Kerry says:

      I think your summary of who will like the book and who will not is precisely correct. I am with you on the sequel: no thanks.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  8. Almost 1,000 pages. Never mind the quality, feel the width…

    A lot of readers do judge value in a book by length, a longer book being more valuable than a shorter one since the price is generally similar and there’s more in it. Follett helps meet that demand.

    This was just made into a major drama series in the UK, I skipped it because it had Follett’s name on it and he has something of a reputation as a hack. I genuinely had no idea he was such a popular hack.

    What on Earth made you read it? This was never going to be good, and Bernard Cornwall covers much the same territory in a fraction the space and with much greater efficiency.

    On cathedrals, treat yourself to a copy of Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. That does cathedrals well, one cathedral anyway.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for the Victor Hugo suggestion!

      I thought Follett was a good thriller writer (possibly mistaken memory from my teenage years…oh, how I have changed). And I was interested in how he kept the plot rolling forward. He is good at that. It’s just most of the rest (which are the things I tend to care about) that didn’t agree with me.

  9. Biblibio says:

    Am I the only one very sick of the use of chess to indicate the intelligence of a character? People can be smart without being chess whizes, but it seems like every book I read with a smart young character has them be a chess prodigy or something and “never lose a game”. It gets old

    I think it’s the point about the good women never being ugly that convinces me that this probably isn’t the book for me. It’s one of those small details that really bug me in books with badly crafted characters. Just a random pet peeve… and very cool that you mentioned it in your (great) review!

    I can see how a book like this might be a lot of fun for some readers (who don’t have my insane pet peeves), but there are enough good plot-filled, fun books out there that are well-written and filled with good characters that I don’t see the point in putting myself through this.

    • Kerry says:

      No, Biblibio. You are not alone. It is one of my biggest pet peeves. (My “heroes should play chess well” bit was sarcasm, if that was not clear. If I ever write a book with a smart young character and chess shows up, the smart young character will play chess very poorly.)

      “I don’t see the point in putting myself through this…” Based on what I have gleaned about your taste in literature, you are very wise to avoid this one. It would not suit you.

      Thanks for the comment (and the compliment)!

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