Greetings, Salutations and All That Jazz,
The family and I have recently returned from a 2 week stint in Europe. Nothing too fancy, we visited family in England and Germany, a nice little adventure for our trio. The great thing about painfully long plane trips is the generous time you have to devour your current read. There’s not much else to do, so it’s something of a holiday in and of itself, removed from home with chores and responsibilities and the inevitable guilt for stealing a few minutes to discover What Happened Next to your favourite characters. Your biggest concerns on long flight are wondering whether turning your head to the left or right will be more comfortable, and do I dare eat the plane food? (I’ve seen Flying High, aka Aeroplane, I know how these things play out).
It’s no surprise then, that I completely annihilated Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and then began World Without End on the return flight home. I can safely say, that I was taken somewhat by surprise by Pillars. The funny thing about this book is that months ago, I saw an ad on for the TV miniseries, and had a sudden case of HaveToHaveThatBook. I searched high and low to find a reasonably priced copy and once the treasure was acquired, it lay unopened and unappreciated on my bedside table for 2 months while I finished the other books I HadToHave. Such is the circle of my reading life. By the time I managed to get to Pillars of the Earth, the urge and inspiration had gone, and I actually found Part 1 difficult to get through. I have a theory on why that was the case, however, I’m glad to say that as soon as Part 2 came around, I was, quite simply, hooked.
Having never read any Ken Follett works before, I had no idea what I was in for. Apparently, neither were his fans. Having made his mark in the espionage-thriller genres, writing about the building of a cathedral in 12th Century England was an entirely new direction for the author. Fortunately his publishers considered it a worthy risk because it’s now his most popular book and the sequel “World Without End” written a decade later, seems just as successful.
The Pillars of the Earth is set in Kingsbridge, England. The plot revolves around the building of a cathedral during a period of civil war, known as The Anarchy where King Stephen and Princess Maud battle over the throne, King Henry’s only heir having died in a shipwreck. For a more exhaustive plot summary, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pillars_of_the_Earth
This novel truly is a masterpiece. Designed with as much precision as the architecture of the cathedral itself, the story journeys through the birth and attempted building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and the lives of those whose fates are so intertwined with it’s success. Ken Follett takes the reader from the present day, post modern techno era, into the 12th Century world of religion, politics, peasantry and architecture with ease. Although not quite the same psychological insight of Tolstoy, this novel did remind me of Anna Karenina, in it’s ability to unravel the fabric of society, making an historical era as real and believable as the present day.
I found the “tug-of-war” politics behind the building of the cathedral intense, yet enthralling. Prior Philip truly is heroic as he faces unceasing obstacles to the realisation of his dream to build his God a temple. There is much irony in the book that is not always resolved – i think this is good, it adds humanity to the story. The fact that it is Jack Jackson who at times exhibits aspects of blatant sociopathy, who burns down the old decrepit church, creating need for a new house of God, that only he in later years can see to fruition. It’s a fascinating dynamic, particularly because it raises significant theological questions as to the providence, existence and manner of God. There are moments in the story where the presence, truth and will of God seems undoubtedly focussed on the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral. He exists, Philip is his instrument, and He wants His building. But then there are moments that throw a sceptical light on the institution of religion as a human-made construct to control the masses. It could make you dizzy, and it’s a fascinating motif that connects medieval and present day as naturally as night and day.
Another motif within the story is the strength of the human spirit, demonstrated particularly in the character of Aliena, whose storyline is quite similar to that of the church building itself. More than once she has been forced to rise from the ashes, each time at the hand of William. An inspirational character, it is ironic that if it weren’t for Philip, her initial plunge into doom caused by the imprisonment of her father wouldn’t have occured; yet it is Prior Philip who provides a livelihood for her later. What is interesting, is that Aliena never discovers this truth.
Of course the fabric of this epic story are woven with jealousy, rivalries, betrayal and romance – the fibres of classics. There is only one criticism I have about the story, and admittedly, other readers have said they didn’t experience this at all. I was disappointed with the character, Ellen’s, storyline. She had such a firey introduction, I expected more from her. I was glad that she was present and involved at pivotal moments of the story, such as Jack’s imprisonment, Prior Philip’s trial, Aliena’s marriage and then her reunion with Jack, but I wanted more. I didn’t trust her motives in following Tom Builder and it wasn’t until much later that I realised my error. It just seemed too soon after Agnus’ death, and too implausible that this woman of ferocious independence who had fared well with her son in the woods would just suddently give it up to follow Tom Builder. There had to be more – or, I wanted to see more and know more of her, being such a powerfully mysterious woman. Perhaps that was the point? I don’t know, nonetheless, that was the one area I felt let down with the book.
There was a certain level of brutality in the novel that was difficult at times to read. In hindsight, I can see the importance of establishing the deterioration of William and his rise from humiliation to perceived power. It serves as a brilliant contrast to Aliena’s storyline. The initial assault of Aliena was difficult, though obviously a pivotal point in both of their paths. The assault forever changes both Aliena and William and forges a dichotomy between the two – William, who seeks power through cruelty though is never quite satisfied and Aliena who seeks power through tact and self reliance and manages to rise above many challenges.
The female characters in the novel are wonderful. I have mentioned Aliena and Ellen, but there is another who is equally as pivotal and fascinating: Regan Hamleigh. William Hamleigh’s mother, and the female mastermind behind many successful (and almost successful) schemes to see William elevated and the family name restored. She’s disturbing, she’s ferociously cunning, and she craps all over many of the men who dominate the political realm, though they wouldn’t have a clue. I was torn between being repulsed and yet drawn to such an insightful and powerful woman, I didn’t want her to succeed, but enjoyed witnessing her unravel and manipulate the plans of the powerful to her own end.
I could say more, so much more but I’ll leave it there for the moment. What a magnificent book, probably one of my favourite reads all year.