Waheed Rabbani's Reviews > Winter of the World

Winter of the World by Ken Follett
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Jan 03, 2014

it was amazing
Read in September, 2012

Fall of Giants, Book One of Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy, had ended in January 1924 at the finish of World War I and the Russian Revolution, showing a nine-year-old boy shaking hands with his father. Book Two, Winter of the World, commences in February 1933, with eleven-year-old Carla in the kitchen of her Berlin home wondering what her parents, English born Maud, and German born Walter von Ulrich, were arguing about. Book One’s readers would also be unsure what the quarrel was for, as they would recall them to be an amorous couple, who had defied the establishment and married in London—when Walter was a German diplomat there—on the eve of the Great War. We soon learn that the row was about Walter’s objection to an uncomplimentary article on Adolf Hitler, written by Maud in a German magazine, where she worked. It was not that Walter was a Nazi, for he was a Social Democratic Party representative in the Reichstag, but he feared: “It would infuriate the Nazis … and … they’re dangerous when riled.” Before long Walter’s predictions come true. The “Brownshirts” soon start disrupting meetings of parties opposing Hitler, and attacking Jews and others in the streets. The novel thus begins evocatively, covering the rise of a new giant, the Third Reich, from the ashes of the previous one, which throws the world into a “winter.”

Just as in Book One of the trilogy, this novel continues with the story of the five interrelated families—English, Welsh, German, Russian, and American—who live through some of the major world-events from 1933 to 1949. This part features: the rise of Fascists and Nazis, WW II, the development and dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the start of the Cold War. The plot now includes not only some of the previous characters, but also their children. It seems Follett does not need as many characters, as noted in the previous book’s six pages. In this novel they are listed on five pages, which makes it a more intimate read. While the list is handily presented, at the beginning of the book, most readers—including those not having read Fall of Giants—will likely not feel the need to refer to it.

Although the narrative swings, from country to country and family to family, the characters, particularly those not having ‘come on stage’ for a while, are reintroduced by a skillful clue, enabling readers to identify them immediately. Particularly, their names: Chuck, Gus, Woody, Boy, Maud, Lloyd, Erik, Volodya, and so on, are well chosen and recognizable representatives of their country of origin. Although that period’s historical events are well known, from film and history texts, the narrative thread of these individuals, whom we care for and wish to learn more about, would encourage readers to keep turning the pages of this magnum opus. The result is not only an entertaining reading of their love stories and sexual experiences, but also an insight into the calamity, the horrors, the pain and sufferings of these people, who lived through those tumultuous times. Also, concurrently, we gain an insight into the monumental efforts made by the Allies to bring the Nazi menace to its knees. To accomplish this, Ken Follett has used the tools of an historical fiction novelist admirably. The casts’ locations, education, job functions, and personal characteristics are well chosen, which enable them to mix seamlessly with real historic characters at most of the important proceedings, such as political demonstrations, vandalisms, spying, strategy planning meetings, military campaigns, peace talks and so on. These give us the thrill of having shared the mental thoughts and lived through those events beside the characters. Not only that, but Follett’s eye for detail, such as, people turn on their radio sets and wait for them to warm up before the sound comes, puts us right in that epoch.

Nevertheless, in order to make all of the above happen, Follett has had to use the fictional story-tellers’ favorite device of ‘coincidence’ in this book, as much he did in the former. The actors happen to be, proverbially, at the right place at the right time, to meet the right person. Some readers might find this unnerving. For instance, in one scene a soldier, while serving clandestinely in France, rescues the pilot of a downed aircraft, who turns out to be his half-brother, on a sortie out of England! However, this reviewer would agree with the dialogue between the characters: “It’s a small world … Isn’t it?” For such quirks of fate do happen. [Actually, in a similar fluke, I once happened to meet my cousin—who lives in a city over 10,000 Kms away from mine—at the Dubai Airport, while changing flights, although we were both on separate trips!]

The Spanish Civil War is covered in some depth, and its major lesson is enunciated by a Welsh character, Lloyd, as: “ … we have to fight the Communists just as hard as the Fascists. They’re both evil.” As it turns out, the Communists helped to subdue the Nazis, and the Cold War with them was yet to come.

Quite naturally, Follett was not able to capture, in detail, all the theaters of the WW II, such as the Dunkirk evacuation, the battles in North Africa, Italy, Burma and elsewhere. But, the ones he has covered, are presented movingly and the action sequences are in sufficient detail to bring them visually before our eyes, but not so monotonously—as in some war movies—to make them tedious. The best coverage is of the War in the Pacific, particularly the Battle of Midway and the sinking of the USS Yorktown, told through the eyes of Chuck Dewar, a closeted-gay US naval officer. Follett’s introduction of diverse characters, and the portrayal of an interracial love affair brings additional vividness to the novel.

Possibly, because the topic, of the Nazi Concentration Camps for Jews and others, is well covered elsewhere, they only have a passing mentioned in this novel. However, Follett has included at some length the discovery and the eventual closing of the not too well known Aktion T4 “hospitals.” While this novel covers just one such institution, it is known that there were about six, where many thousands of German citizens deemed to be incurably sick, mentally incapacitated or physically handicapped were euthanized. They were, not coincidentally, also mostly of Jewish and mixed races. The novel describes the thrilling bravery of the German teenage girls, Carla and Frieda, to collect evidence that through the efforts of German clergy and public opinion, which finally persuaded the Fuhrer to close the program.

While there are many real and fictional politicians, spies and their clandestine activities abound in the novel. Here Follett, as a masterpiece thriller novelist, is on familiar territory. Since the story lines are those of the children of the characters in Book One, they are mostly teenagers or slightly older. Yet, they perform remarkable feats of international espionage, with ease, which turns the course of wars and fates of nations. Such as the young Volodya, who after conducting several successful undercover activities for the Russians in Berlin, is sent all the way to Albuquerque New Mexico, in 1945, when he is still only about thirty. His mission: to bring back the plans of the nuclear bomb.

The third part of this novel, called “The Cold Peace,” sets the stage for the final Book Three of the Century Trilogy. The characters, children of the ones in Book One, now have kids of their own, who will undoubtedly play a prominent role in the Cold War storylines to come. The final chapter’s ending, similar to the Book One’s, shows a child blowing out his birthday candles, indicative of the promise a new beginning. However, will they live in peace? We will have to wait for the Book Three to find out.

Ken Follett, in the recent promotional interviews for the Winter of the World, disclosed that he had the typescript of the novel read by a number of notable historians. They are also mentioned in the acknowledgements. It seems that their help, and Follett’s skilful research has made this novel, except for the fictional characters, historically correct. Finishing reading this 960-page novel is a much easier feat, than writing it. Hence readers should raise a glass, of Ken Follett’s favorite champagne, in a toast to his arduous undertaking for taking us on this memorable century long journey.

Reviewed from an advanced reading eGalley, complements of Dutton/Penguin

Waheed Rabbani is a historical fiction author, whose books are available on Amazon and elsewhere.
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Kevin Waheed! Wow, now that is what I call a first rate review.

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