1 Mar 2013

Review: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

While working at the book stall there are certain books that get repeatedly recommended to me, I love chatting with people and finding out about new books. I noticed that Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett came up in conversation with lots of people, with many of them citing it as one of their favourite books. I'm an avid audio book reader, I listen to books as I'm making my work for Nice Day Designs, and at well over 30 hours this seemed like a good one to go for(don't worry I don't just chose books by their length, but it does help).

In brief Pillars tells of the lengthy construction of Kingsbridge Cathedral, from the first brick to the last. This building entangles the lives of  it's master builder Tom and the monastery's prior Phillip. There are many struggles and trials of funding, wicked power hungry peers, towns being ransacked, and disaster being over come. It's an historical novel set in the 12th century, but much of it's content reminded me of the many fantasy books I've read; just without the magic and dragons. If you are into reading of castles, kings, and serfs with lofty ideas then this will probably appeal to you.

I'm pretty torn about this book, I would probably recommend it to a friend as there are elements that were really enjoyable, the story at it's core is a compelling one. Yet at the same time there are massive problems with some of Follett's writing that just can't be ignored. To be honest when I closed the book(not literally as it was audio) I was more than a little baffled as to why so many people loved it. I think I may have enjoyed it more if I hadn't expected so much.

I'll start with the good parts; it's 'nice to be nice' as all mammies say. I really enjoyed the scope of the story, we see all the characters develop over a large expanse of time, it's satisfying to see them grow and develop. At the same pace we feel the Cathedral rise around the story, it's slowness is foreign to a modern reader, and this is a perfect metaphor for the speed of this time, so different from our own. It's when Follett is talking of the building and architecture that his writing really shines. It appealed to my art history background, and this book brought to life lots of stale facts I had gathered in lecture halls about transepts and arches. I read in other reviews that they found these parts too technical, and maybe they are for some readers, but I thought them a joy. There are also some genuinely likable characters such as Jack Jackson and Aliena, which helps to keep interest going when other areas are waning.

I had major difficulties with some aspects of the book though. The writing style leaves a lot to be desired, aside from where he shines in discussing architecture a lot of the time it feels flat and forced. This is especially noticeable when building connections between characters, and some particularly awkward and blue sex scenes. Please don't mistake me for a prude, but you just shouldn't cringe at the self consciousness and woodenness of a writer, especially during a point when trying to create intimacy. The sexual interludes vary between baffling, the initial woods scene with Tom builder, and needlessly violent and strangely detached.

If the flaws ended there I would have forgiven the book, and still loved it, but they don't. Follett shows a very black and white view of the world, good people do good things, have bad things happen to them, and are beautiful and/or talented. Bad people only do bad things, are wealthy, and become more ugly as the book progresses. This is so shockingly naive that it nearly becomes funny as we follow the predictable trials and tribulations of the poor worthy folk. There is a seesaw flow to the story, good thing followed by disaster, followed by good thing, and so on. All the crisis are perpetrated by the same evil overlord, who gains a silly ghoulishness by wearing his Scoobydoo like 'bad man' mask. If there was a variation in characters of wrong doers it might have made the constant drugery a bit more believable. Instead about half way through the book I became numb to the hardships the main protagonists had to face, as I knew the inevitable positive was coming. Compare this to Martin's Song of Ice and Fire where no character is truly good or bad, people do things for very complicated reasons to do with honour, fear, selfishness and greed.

So if you read this book don't expect to be bowled over by amazing writing, expect the expected, but sit back and enjoy a very easy, if albeit lengthy, read.

(On a side note I would recommend the tv series in much the same way; it's not ground breaking but it's certainly entertaining. Particularly Eddie Redmayne and Hayley Atwell).

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  1. I am one third through this book and I am amazed at the large amounts (and their length) of narratives Follett uses throughout this section. I have no problem with it, but it does seem to break a standing rule in fiction writing, "show don't tell".

    For me, I am more focused on the style of writing (I am a new writer), but I do enjoy the historic endeavor Follett places in this work. Maybe that's the appeal to so many of its readers.

    I agree with you on your main point, the story's realism does suffer with the baddies being somewhat cardboard and the ebb and flow of "suffer --> success" for the good guys. Could Follett's love for cathedrals have blinded him to his character construction in this project - who knows?

    Ha, I wrote character construction (pun)! Maybe that's the problem. If more focus was placed on characters other than the buildings it might have raised the book a floor or two.

    Any thought on Follett's abundant narratives?

  2. I'm liking the second pun too, well done!

    I haven't read any of Follett's other work but I've bought the second part to the book out of sheer curiousity, just because it feels wrong not to finish a series.


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