The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

This is a rollicking good story. Recommended by a work colleague, I bought this book from Waterstones earlier in the year, but because of its size, I have waited for a decent slot in my reading schedule to tackle it.
Set in the 1100's in England, the story tells of a whole group of people who come together over the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The story is much more than an account of a building, which serves as a pivot for which their complex lives move around. Spanning over 50 years, it intertwines certain key events from history and includes a short episode in Spain and France.
We learn about each character in turn, before they converge at a later stage, starting with Tom Builder, the stone mason who dreams of building his own cathedral, and his family who are dependent on him. There is Philip, the ambitious but fair-minded Prior who wants a replacement church for his run down priory. We have Aliena, daughter of a deposed Earl, using her wits and canny intelligence to survive as a wool trader, a woman in a mans arena, until her brother can reclaim the family title. Then there is Jack, the smart and unconventional son of an outcast woman, and finally William, the slightly insane enemy, paranoiaic and cruel, with more than a little taste for sexual violence, who plots and plunders his way towards his plan to destroy the Kingsbridge cathedral. There are many other characters along the way.
This book is very easy to read, and there are adventures, twists and turns on every page, so that the 1076 pages turn without you noticing. There are huge sections of the book where I couldn't put it down and found myself reading until the early hours, wanting to know what was to happen next. I quickly became very attached to some of the characters (many of the ones listed above) and rooted for them against all the odds that were thrown at them. At times feeling like a cross between The Tales of Robin Hood and The A Team, this is very much a plot driven story about character, and the triumph of good over evil. The text has no ambiguity about it and very little poetry, but the intricacies of the lives of the characters and the plot made up for this.
There are some bloody scenes that naturally occur when writing about this time period, the book starts with a hanging, and there are battles, injuries, punishments and even a bear baiting at one point, but I did not feel it went too far. Just far enough to evoke the period, or to demand justice in the readers conscience when the baddies struck.
Some readers may find the ups and downs of the plot a little formulaic, good triumphing over evil, prayers answered, the baddies getting their comeuppance and love stories coming to fruition. We all know that life is not often like that, but sometimes it does you good to read such stories and restore a little faith. This book certainly does that and hope is an emotion that I felt often during its course. There are still lots of heart stopping moments too.
This is an exciting book to read, not for complexities of language, but for a story that never lets you go once you have opened the first pages. The building of relationships, friendships and industry towards a common goal, of people forging lives against the odds, was infectious. I really enjoyed it and I think it will appeal to many types of readers from lots of backgrounds, especially those who enjoy a good adventure told in a straight forward way.
Ken Follett has his own website where you can read more about how the book came about. It also includes a Pillars of the Earth reading guide.


One Swede Read said...

I just picked this up to have something to read on a loooong plane-ride, but its heft was getting me a bit worried (carry a huge book and then it not turn out to be great....). Thanks for putting my mind at ease!

Jeane said...

My father recommended this book to me, but I was never clear what it was about until I read your review. Oh, and I just gave you a blog award!

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