“I am going to write a history of the world.” Ooops. Sorry. Wrong book. However, Ken Follett apparently tried to take a leaf out of the book of Penelope Lively’s fictional MC* with this attempt at creating an account – fictional though it may be – of all events connected with the First World War in Europe and the US.
The start of the story is pretty interesting as we follow little Billy Williams on his first day as a miner in the Welsh pits. It has nothing to do with the story behind the historical events and Billy is only one of many MCs in this book, but I guess the author had to start somewhere.
From there on, the story becomes a bit convoluted as every character seems to relate to another character until we finally have several stories being told in parallel which cover the lives of people in Britain, Germany, Russia and the USA.
I actually enjoyed this aspect of comparative storytelling. And Ken Follett can tell a story. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel he pulled it off in this book.
The problems I had, and there were a number of them, started with Follett’s writing. There were a number of points in the book when the use of language did not seem appropriate to the setting of the story. For example, he uses the word “sexy” when describing a woman in pre-1917 St. Petersburg slums. Now, I am not objecting to the description or the word itself – but it seemed so out of place.
Another problem I had is that the MCs – in fact all the characters in the book – seemed to be cliches: The good miner boy, the clever but lower class housemaid who is seduced by the local gentry, the austere but goodhearted Russian, the American gangster boss, …. you can see where I’m going with this.
Of course, attempting an all-encompassing novel like this is a massive undertaking but at times I wished that the characters had been a little less black and white. Just a twist every now and then would have been good.
And, in connection with the cliched characters, I also had to wonder through much of the first half of the book if Follett knows Julian Fellows.
I’m fully aware that the plots of Downton Abbey are pretty generic dramatised tripe, but I surely got to thinking about the two authors in a chicken and egg sort of way – which one came first? I was even able to imagine them having drinks in some club discussing their ideas.
Anyway, I digress.
So, Fall of Giants falls a bit short on depth of the characters because it is an ambitious book. On the historical side, too, it is packed with information, which is probably great if you’re into learning about history through fiction and if you’re unfamiliar with the history of Europe in the early 1900s and the First Wold War. However, it seems that Follett’s purpose at times was to cram as many historical events into the book as possible using as few as possible MCs – yet still making sure they are all connected. So, at times, the events that befall the characters are contrived to a degree that made the story feel a little trashy.
There a couple of other issues I had with the book but they are mainly based on my preference to not read fictionalised accounts of history – not that there are any accounts of history which do not contain at least an element of fiction – and my preference to not be fed one-sided political points of view but the presentation of balanced argument is not the point of this book.
So why did I still invest time in this book? I had the audiobook. It was read by Dan Stevens. He can read anything to me at any time.
*Claudia in Moon Tiger
2* (out of 5*)