Monday, April 21, 2008

Pillars of the Earth -- Ken Follett

It's appropriate, I suppose, that my last post was all about keeping things short and sweet -- this time, I'm reviewing the longest book I've read since I took The English Novel with Tim Spurgin at Lawrence University and had to read Tom Jones and Middlemarch in about one and a half weeks each.

Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett's massive tome on Medieval cathedral building, received a lot of publicity lately when the Good Queen Winfrey chose it for her book club. My reason for reading it had nothing to do with Oprah -- it was suggested to me by one of the most prolific readers that I know -- but I'm happy to ride on the popularity wave if that means that a Google search of the title might lead a stray reader or two to my little piece of the blogosphere.

The book begins in 1123 with a grim but typical Medieval scene: a public hanging. We aren't given much information or context, but the scene contains all of the gruesome and tantalizing details that probably typify the rest of Follett's works, which are mostly thrillers. And, like a typical thriller writer, Follett holds the mystery of this scene out in front of us throughout his novel, using it to weave his web of fiction while keeping us curious enough to keep reading.

And we do need that carrot reward, and more, to wade through the 900+ pages that follow. Follett keeps everything moving by providing us with a rich tapestry of characters from all walks of Medieval life. The book centers on the construction of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, an ambitious project that is the brainchild of Prior Philip, a crafty but caring priest who wants his priory to become one of the gems in England's Catholic crown, and the lifeblood of Tom Builder, a down-on-his luck stonemason with big dreams of being a master builder and architect of a towering monument to God. The two men cross paths when Tom and his family are stranded and starving in the woods near Philip's priory. When a fire destroys most of the existing priory structure, Philip is desperate for Tom's assistance, and their partnership -- of brains and brawn, piety and passion -- produces a plan for a daring new kind of church that will pave the way for a new era of architecture.

Along the way, dozens of characters work themselves in and out of the narrative: the cruel William Hamleigh and his ravenous desire to possess land, women, and power; the proud Duchess Aliena, who falls into poverty and despair when her father is ousted as the Earl and must rebuild her life to avenge her family's disgrace; Jack Jackson, the brilliant, auburn-haired elf-child of Ellen, a known witch and Tom Builder's lover; and Waleran Bigod, a conniving bishop who changes alliances and grants priestly pardons to suit his plans to become one of the most powerful priests in England. With each new character, we're given a chance to witness the struggles and triumphs of Medieval life from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy. While certainly plot-driven, Pillars of the Earth also serves as an encyclopedia of Middle Ages society and customs: from the construction of character's last names to the precise detail about the wool industry to the descriptions of actual battles from English history, the book is at once complex story and educational tool.

It is the latter that may turn off some readers -- Follett is clearly fascinated with the development of Gothic architecture from Romanesque roots, and much of the novel is spent detailing the attempts made by Philip, Tom, and eventually Jack to create this new architectural style. Their trials and failures over decades of work are engrossing, but even the most devoted reader may have trouble wading through some of the specific details of the building process and Follett's contrivances to dovetail fact into fiction. Those who have waded through the minutiae of ship life in Moby Dick were certainly rewarded by the gripping tale of the white whale, but many jumped ship long before finishing; similarly, Follett's audience may become as decimated as English towns during the Plague due to his wordy explanations.

Ken Follett's writing style, though certainly not anything that will put him in line to win many literary honors, is appropriate for his story. The prose is simple and direct and leaves plenty of room for the characters and action to come alive, rather than commanding attention from the reader for itself alone. Many of the scenes in the novel are startlingly graphic -- the horrific rape that William Hamleigh commits near the beginning of the book being the first of many we encounter -- but considering the stark conditions of the time period, Follett has done an admirable job of giving his audience a real sense of the time and place. And despite having so many balls in the air, Follett keeps the characters and the events very real and tangible. Perhaps his best work can be seen in the character of Aliena; more than any one else we meet in the novel, Aliena leaps from the page. She is a flawed and damaged young woman when we first get the chance to really know her as she trudges along the dirt roads of England, her feet bleeding from the peasant clogs she is forced to wear in her current state of poverty. But as the church is slowly built, brick by brick, Aliena pieces her life back together, and we celebrate her rise to prominence in the Kingsbridge marketplace, mourn with her as she witnesses her hopes for the future literally go up in flames, and hold our breath as she, with baby in tow, wanders across Europe in search for the man she has finally realized she loves. In Aliena, Follett has given us the messy struggles and dreams of the Middle Ages -- struggles and dreams that, despite our cars and indoor plumbing and modern sense of security, we can still connect to in the 21st century.

By the time the dedicated reader reaches the final scene of Pillars of the Earth -- a retelling of Thomas Becket's brutal murder at Canterbury ripped straight from the annals of history -- it will have felt like a penitential pilgrimage, but everything is finally resolved. Follett doesn't disappoint: the characters we've rooted for have all achieved their own kinds of salvation, while their enemies have been forced to atone for their public and private sins. The public hanging in the last few pages of the novel provides a nice bookend to the first scene: this time, there is no sense of terror, but instead the satisfaction of final justice, of a story's final loose thread sewn up, of the final brick set firmly into place.

Final Verdict: ***

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