Sunday 27 April 2008

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Over 1000 pages......are you kidding me? Despite Oprah's urgings I had resisted reading this book simply because of its heft. I couldn't bear the thought of either carrying the book around or trying to hold it up as I read it in bed. But the enthusiastic urgings of various friends and other book reviews encouraged me to forget my misgivings and give it a go. I've carried this weight to Toronto and back and now all over my epic Indian Safari.

And I am glad I did. This was a history lesson and provided fascinating insight into the life of the resident of 12th century England (with a little bit of France thrown in for good measure).

I've heard that many of Ken Follett's previous books are filled with a cast of thousands and can be difficult to manage as a result. This book is no different. There is a cast of thousands; thousands of monks and landed gentry, and peasants, and royalty. The drama takes you from the rolling hills and forests of southern England to the religious pilgrimages to Spain and beyond and then back to the building of Notre Dame. And yet the subtle weaving of the stories of these lives is captivating. The lives of this cast of thousands cross paths time and time again making small and big differences to the outcomes of their lives.

Each character is lovingly developed with attention to the individuals. No shallow characters here. And no gross generalisations either. The characters never become parodies even the evil William and the alleged witch Ellen.

I wish I knew more about architecture before I started reading it but I certainly know more about architecture having read it. The purpose behind flying buttresses is now abundantly clear. I feel I understand better the purpose behind building those epic cathedrals.

Civil war, famine, bad weather, and greed/corruption of church officials and barons had a direct impact on the lifestyle of everyone and it appears to have been extremely difficult to escape the varying degrees of destruction and strife each one left.

My favourite character was Aliena, a member of a royal family, appearing initially as spoilt rotten, who loses her royal status, nearly starves and is brutally raped but finds deep inside her a survivor spirit and fights back year after year through hard work and brute determination to establish herself as a self sufficient woman making a fundamental contribution to society. Eventually she finds within herself the capability to love which had long been suppressed. She was such a strong character I loved and admired her.

The only disappointment is the very last chapter. Thomas Beckett appears out of nowhere and the story ends with a neat and tidy moral lesson. It took away from the rest of the book which seemed to be more about the fact that life isn't always fair.

Despite that one minor complaint, I highly recommend this book, especially if you are into historical fiction. Like The Other Boleyn Girl, this story has its roots in history although, I have no doubt, considerable literary license has been taken. Many of the characters a directly from our history books, eg King Stephen and Thomas Beckett, but others, eg Tom Builder and Prior Phillip, are purely from the author's imagination. My complaint is how do I know what is real and what is imagined. But this only causes me to read more.

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