Wednesday, 17 October 2012

World Without End - the sequel to the fascinating The Pillars of the Earth

After reading the more than 1,000 pages long The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, you would think there is possibly not much more he can actually say about Kingsbridge and its cathedral. The novel is extensive in description, spanning more than 20 years and covering every possible spectrum of human emotion and relationship. Quite entertaining, of course, and when you finish that last page (FINALLY!) you feel a bit disappointed. You actually feel you are going to miss Jack, Aliena, Philippe and even William. However, even though you wanted it to last a little bit longer, you are definitely worried about the fact that the sequel is even longer. What could possibly Follet has to say more and would he actually ruin the good impression of the first novel with a rather weak second one?

These were the thoughts running through my head as I finally finished The Pillars of the Earth and seconds later grabbed World Without End, its appraised sequel. As I already mentioned, it was even longer than the first one - nearly 1,200 pages with the smallest font size I have ever come upon to. However, it was set nearly 200 years after the first one so Mr. Follet certainly gave himself room for a new story.

The novel begins with an awful secret. Four little children from the town of Kingsbridge (now a prosperous English market and religious center) witness a disturbing scene in the forest. The knight Thomas is nearly killed because of a terrible secret he knows and has sworn to protect. To escape his mysterious enemies, Thomas becomes a monk and joins the Kingsbridge monastery. Before that, he swears oath to Merthin, one of the children, to never reveal what he saw or that would be the end of his life. This secret (which is not revealed until the last few pages and you hardly remember that it existed) doesn't shape the lifes of Merthin, Asia, Ralph and Gwenda as the useless description on the back says. It scarcely affects their lifes so please don't always trust what some "clever" mind has written as a book description.

Merthin and Ralph are the two sons of the fallen nobleman Gerard, who after losing all his money is forced to live on the charity of the Kingsbridge monastery. The boys cannot be more different. Ralph is the younger one, but he is stronger and since early childhood he shows signs of violence. Merthin dreams of being a knight but his weak figure and father's disapproval destines him to the fate of a mason. Here comes the first of oh so many similarities between The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Yes, the stories are different, but the main characters are way too the same. Caris (Aliena?) is the smart and sceptible daughter of one of the richest woolers in the town. The love-hate relationship that forms between her and Merthin will span many years and several continents (a little reminder of Aliena's pilgrimage to find Jack). Ralph of course, turns out to be the biggest villain in the novel (William!) and by the 500 page we all hate him so much that we wonder which one was worse - William or Ralph.

Gwenda is the bit of fresh air that actually brings to the difference between the prequel and the sequel. She is a low born woman with a troublesome family. Her father, a most prominent impostor, barely manages to feed his family and from an early age forces Gwenda to steal. At one point he even sells her as a prostitute for a cow (I know, FOR A COW!). Seeing that she cannot get help from her mother or father, Gwenda becomes the most independent and admirable character in the novel. Her desperate love for Wulfric, who in turn longs for the stupid but beautiful Annette, shapes her life and gives her strength to fight both for Wulfric and herself. A clash against Ralph unfortunately marks a life of uncertainty and violence. Nevertheless, Gwenda is keen and observant and only her strength of will and sharpness of mind keep Wulfric and herself alive and fed.

What World Without End lacks is the strong figure of the prior of Kingsbridge. Instead the priory and the town are run by Prior Anthony, Caris's ambitious but unscrupulous and shortsighted cousin. When the bridge that connects the town to the rest of the county collapses, Merthin is set on an ambitious project to build a stone bridge and correct any mistakes made by previous builders. Similarly to Tom and later Jack, Merthin is faced with backwardness, intrigues, and cruelty.

The drama of the English-French war is exacerbated by another, more evasive enemy. The plague comes to Europe, to the UK, and to Kingsbridge itself. People are starting to doubt the ultimate power of the clergy and its prayers to cure a disease that seems out of reach. Caris, now a prominent leader of the town, attempts to wipe out widespread prejudice towards medicine and to educate people on the importance of isolating the sick and preventing the further spread of the plague. Herself and Merthin appear to be the white knights of the story, fighting at any point of time corrupted clergy, violent men-at-arms, and conservative townsmen. Their love story passes through ups and downs, with Caris being sentenced to death and Merthin travelling back and forth. Again, it quite resembles Jack and Aliena's.

Ken Follett has rich imagination and is a fascinating and engaging storyteller. He knows the human soul and he has an eye for what constitutes a good story and a good conflict. However, he is a bit too much in World Without End. The novel could have easily been 200-300 pages shorter without that altering its quality. In fact, it would have increased it significantly. In addition, the resemblance with The Pillars of the Earth is annoying at points. I guess if you don't read them one after the other, you might not find that so disturbing, but if you do (like me), you will feel you are reading the same book over again.

I am looking forward to the second part of his 20th century trilogy, Winter of the World (first one: Fall of Giants) and I sincerely hope he doesn't make the same mistake as with The Pillars of the Earth. However, nearly 2,500 pages with Ken Follet later, I definitely need a long break from him.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Magnificent Cathedral, Magnificent Ken Follet

Set in the turbulent 12th century, when medieval England is torn by a civil war, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.There is everything, and a lot of it in the nearly 1,000 pages novel: love, hatred, deceit, rape, wisdom, jealousy, manipulation, life as it was back then and most certainly as it is right now.

Tom Builder is a poor man with a big dream - he wants to build the most beautiful cathedral. Tom himself is not religious, but he sees cathedrals as the most impressive buildings in the world. They were, especially in medieval England when most people lived in something slightly better than a barn. Because of Tom's dream, though, his family is more often than not starving and homeless. When his wife dies in the woods giving birth to his third child, Tom is near desperation and abandons the baby in the woods. Meeting Ellen, a strange outlaw living in the forest, and falling in love with her is the one thing that saves him from desperation.

Ellen is one of the strong and admirable women in the novel. She lives alone with her strange son Jack after leaving the comfort of communal life nearly 10 years ago. The father of her child was wrongly hanged for a crime he didn't commit and in a feeling of desperation, Ellen cursed the church and the accusers. Her life ever since has been in opposition to the greed and hypocrisy of the ruling men - whether they are earls, priors, bishops, or kings.

Prior Philip is one of the most enchanting figures in the novel. As a child his parents were violently murdered and his brother and Philip were saved and raised by monks. His devotion to the Church and God is unshakable, yet as every human being he feels pride and desire to succeed. After becoming the Prior of Kingsbridge, Philip is set on the challenging mission to restore the priory to its former glory, to build the most beautiful church, to reinstall the market, and to transform the small village into a prosperous town.

Agains Tom, Philip, and Jack, who becomes Tom's apprentice and most devout follower stand William, the earl of Shiring and Waleran Bigod, the ambitious Bishop of Kingsbridge. William is probably the only completely evil character in the novel, with nothing human in himself. He is greedy, sexually maniacal, and extremely violent and ruthless. His hatred towards the people of Kingsbridge is well connected to Aliena - the daughter of the former earl of Shiring. When she refuses to marry him, he violently rapes her and throws her out. Now Aliena has united with Prior Philip and the villagers of Kingsbridge and this makes William's desire for revenge even stronger and bloodier.

It is impossible to describe the pathos of this epical story. Spanning from one generation to another, Follet creates rich characters, neither saints nor devils (excluding William of course). The reader feels drawn to the destinies of Ellen, Tom, Jack, Aliena and Philip, trembles when evil threatens to overwhelm justice and leaps with joy when the building of the cathedral is again on its way. Despite Follet's rather negative fame for writing slightly shallow thrilers that can hardly excite a 10 year old, in The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End (so far) he is at his best. I quite enjoyed him in Fall of Giants but to be perfectly honest, he is doing a much better job identifying with the medieval society than with the intriques surrounding WWI.