Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth was a success in 1989 when it was first published, but it’s seen a resurgence of popularity recently due to Oprah’s golden touch (i.e. Book Club). I try not to gauge what goes on my to-be-read pile based on what Oprah endorses, but I can’t deny that her team chooses good books.

The Pillars of the Earth is no exception to that.

Set in the 12th century, the novel is about the building of a cathedral in a fictional English market town called Kingsbridge. Every character, of which there are about fourteen major and ten minor, is in some way connected to this town or its people. The novel is bookmarked by two factual historical events – the sinking of the White Ship, which ushered in the period known as The Anarchy, and the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

It’s easy to see that this was Follett’s magnum opus—the incredible amount of detail in describing the cathedral, through its many states of creation (and destruction) indicate Follett spared no expense for this novel.

Personally, I found the detail to be, at times, too much. I don’t visualize buildings easily so it was a lot of meat that could have been spared for more story. Still, I feel I have a better understanding and appreciation about the sheer amount of work a cathedral in the twelfth century took. I already appreciate the architecture to begin with (that attracted me to this book initially), but having read Pillars I feel that I can look upon these buildings and visualize the masons and carpenters working high atop the scaffolding. I guess the amount of detail wasn’t lost on me after all!

The fuel that really drove this opus though was the characters. Their lives intertwined fluidly, and there were few that I didn’t have an opinion on. Follett’s writing really gives these characters a sense of who they are through their own words. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write each person’s voice!

I felt he lost some of that, though, when he wrapped up the story. Some characters were forgotten and it felt insincere, especially after spending 800+ pages reading about their lives. I’m thinking specifically of Richard, Aliena’s brother, who isn’t a major character in any way, but (I felt) was major enough to get more than a one sentence death scene (that was only reported about—not even an eyewitness account!). Still, I really enjoyed this book. It sucked me in right away by introducing the first set of major characters. There were parts that I needed to force myself to get through (church-building in particular), but in the end it was worth it.

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