Sunday, June 08, 2014

Almost as long as the war

The Pillars of the Earth is set in a time of great turmoil - the first English Civil War, between Stephen and Maud, who both fought for the crown after the death of Henry I. This is the time of the Cadfael books, but Pillars is no police procedural hidden under the gentle mantle of a Benedictine monk.

There are monks, and one of the main characters is in fact a Welshman who has taken the vows of the cloth, but Brother Philip was adopted by the church after his parents were killed by English marauders. The book follows his rise from humble brother through the ranks of increasingly important monastic churches.

Running alongside that is the tale of Tom Builder, a master mason who dreams of one day building his own cathedral, rather than working on the plans of others. Tom's and Philip's ambitions coincide, and the story is based around the ways that the two men's ideas sometimes support each other and sometimes clash.

It's a long book. At just short of 900 pages it does go on a bit, passing through four generations of families in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge. Woven into the lives of all those involved is the Lady Aliena, daughter of the local earl, who falls from grace when her father is imprisoned for treason. She is raped by William, the monstrous son of the man who takes over the manor, and that's where the story really takes off, because she vows to take revenge and restore her brother to the earldom.

It's hard going. Not just for her. Sometimes the book feels as if Follett is labouring to tell the whole history of the period as well as cramming in all of the beastliness and butchery of the era. There are just a few too many hangings, and beatings, and murders, and rapes and thefts, all to show how tough times are and how awful young Lord William is, compared with the old earl. But we know he was no saint either, being one of three powers who allowed an innocent man to hang for the sake of politics.

So it is slightly surprising to discover just a few pages from the end where the whole plot has been leading. Two of the main characters are present at a key event in  history (there's no evidence for this in reality - it's a plot device) and once Follett manages to wangle that, it's as if he loses heart. The last half dozen pages seem rushed after the laborious climb to reach that point. A bit like a roller coaster. Suddenly it's all over.

Now all that might sound like I didn't actually enjoy the read, but that isn't true. I did like getting to know the main characters and the three generations who came after them. And seeing how the various lives intertwined with each other. But I feel as if I was left to drop at the end, rather than having a gentle rounding-up. Yes, I know what happened to everyone, but after the long, involved descriptions of their lives that went before, I wanted more than a couple of sentences each to see them off. I was left feeling cheated, which is a shame.

The Pillars of the Earth
Ken Follett


snafu said...

There was a TV mini series that sounds a lot like the plot of this book. Set in the same period and involved the civil war and building cathederals. I can't remeber if it was based on that particular book or just another re-telling of the period.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Anne - well that's a blessing as it's long and you haven't given it the best of write ups .. pity as he's a good writer and story teller.

Interesting period of history though - lots of changes and being in favour and out of favour ..

The idea of the builder and the monk could well make an interesting story of another sort - just sorry this didn't develop .. but saves me wanting to read 900 pages .. cheers Hilary