The Pillars of the Earth

Ken Follett
Signet, 1990

Follett follows his own advice of moving the story with a good turn of action every four to six pages which made it more difficult to skip large areas in this 983 page tome. I did though. I started during the ten page description of Jack preparing to set a church on fire. Follett is a real storyteller who moves people, plot, history and moral questions along quite nicely most of the time. There’s a lot to be learned about the Middle Ages and cathedral building while being engrossed in a fictional history. Based on a pre-story quote from Domesday Book to Magna Carta, the story aims to a last chapter historical event.

In a recent interview in Writer’s Digest Follett describes his detailed planning before writing that involves a chapter by chapter outline that can take up to a year to perfect. Meticulously, he keeps his characters on the brink of disaster if not in it while also explaining human motivation. No small feat. What confounded me was why a battle with William and King Stephen went on for eight pages but the conclusion of the story point of Jack finding his father’s family (something he’d wished to do since childhood), was less than two and sounded flat.

His characters are sprinkled with positive and negative traits that he uses well to move the story. The good man, Tom, was a good husband and gifted cathedral planner, but a questionable dad who also deserted a baby. Philip was an excellent manager and servant of god, but not so interested in his flock’s daily welfare. Follett slips into stereotype when he describes sex. The bad men all have problems, the good men are better than good and they keep their women happy beyond compare.

There’s a lot of books in the world calling to me, so when the baby got sick on page 681, I wanted it to mean something to the story. It never did. Maybe Follett’s editors are afraid of him,  because even I know that scene could have been cut. I asked myself on page 698 if I cared if Jack ended up with the love of his life Aliana, or the lusty newcomer Aysha. I didn’t, but I was interested in how the story would develop so on I read.

I wouldn’t have understood it if it had been in Chaucer’s English, but it is irritating in a period novel to find modern cliches like killing three men “before breakfast”, “they can live with the damage”, “feeling hot and bothered”. Plus, the word football may have preceded the game, but it still ruined the mood.

Small criticism to a story that presents larger questions of the price of winning and losing,  the results of decisions made with good and cruel motivation, the timeless mechanisms of business, human ingenuity in the workplace and the cloudy landscape of what is justice.

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