by Ken Follett, 2010, Dutton, published by the Penguin Group, New York
This book was a disappointment. Follett has attempted to create a great historical trilogy and this is the first book in this effort. The book is written in a similar fashion as his previous novels, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, in that he picks out individuals in various walks of life and traces their lives through various historical events. But, unlike the previous novels which were set in much earlier times, Fall of Giants takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century and extends through World War I. Perhaps it’s because the timeframe is much more recent that Follett’s historical novel becomes so much more trite.
Follett’s characters are extremely one-dimensional. It seems that once they get identified with a particular cause or philosophy, they remain totally rigid and unable to be at all flexible in their perspectives. They seem to be stick figures in a gigantic soap opera and they very quickly become tiresome. One of the main characters is an English earl, Lord Fitzherbert, who is mired in his conservative view of the world. His German counterpart is Otto von Ulrich who is even more of a conservative dinosaur in his views. Lord Fitzherbert reminded me very much of the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, except for the fact that the Earl of Grantham, while clinging to his old ways, really cares about other individuals and can sometimes be persuaded to alter his views. In so doing, he becomes someone that is at least interesting. Lord Fitzherbert in Fall of Giants has no such endearing qualities, however. As I progressed through the book, I found that I was losing interest in the other characters as well because of the same reason.
Follett uses very short sentences in his books in order to make it fairly easy to read. This helps to keep it going, but after a while it becomes a bit tedious as there is no variety.
The historical backdrop of the novel, the start of World War I and it’s subsequent impact on the characters, had a lot of potential but it somehow wasn’t connected as well as it could have been. An example is the depiction of the war’s ending. The scene was a battle at a bridge in France and the Germans’ defeat in that battle. In the next few pages the Germans were suing for peace. The reasons for the war ending were left very vague.
Also, Winston Churchill was depicted throughout the novel as a warmongering Conservative who was fighting the franchisement of women and all labor reforms. No mention was given of Churchill sponsoring the bills to provide national health insurance and a minimum wage for the workers when he was a member of the Liberal Party.
Finally, Follett, in an attempt, I suppose, to pander to the reading public these days, includes many awkward sex scenes throughout the novel. These scenes altogether seem to detract from the novel versus adding any real value.
The book was okay to read, but long, long, long. I would suggest that Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance are some excellent examples of this type of novel where ordinary individuals are swept up by the events associated with war. The unsurpassed novel in this genre, however, has to be Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.
Ken Follett has apparently stepped beyond his capabilities when he bit off this novel. I would suggest that he return to writing suspense novels where his talents can readily be applied.