Scott's Reviews > The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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Mar 01, 2009

really liked it
Read in March, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth first came to my attention in the form of a board game. In an age where commercial tie-ins inevitably repackage the latest Hollywood dross, I was intrigued by something that was based instead on a well respected book. I had heard of Pillars before, of course—the widely praised epic by suspense writer turned historian Ken Follett—but since I don't generally follow Oprah's recommendations I had never paid it much mind. But now it was on my radar (and for me "radar" is roughly synonymous with "bookshelf"), so when a friend told me that she was reading it and enjoying it, that was enough to get me to haul it off the shelf and break it open.

You probably already know the gist of it. Building a cathedral in twelfth century England. Feuding families and conflicts that span generations. Love. Betrayal. War. Lots of pages.

I think the premise—the building of the cathedral—is fantastic, and wherever else he may have faltered, Follett certainly delivers on that. It is clear that he is knowledgeable and passionate about the architecture and techniques used to build these buildings, the most massive and impressive edifices of their time period. He uses the process of building as the structure of the novel, and we follow his host of characters from the motivations and politics behind the inception of the cathedral to its very completion, over the course of some forty years.

Ken Follett is a good writer, but, unfortunately, I don't think he fits in the top tier of writers that could have truly pulled off a novel as ambitious as this. It's entertaining all the way through, powerful in places, but, like cracks that form in the ceiling of a poorly constructed cathedral, the flaws in parts of it mar the beauty of the whole.

One thing that I found jarring was the crudeness with which sex is described in the book; or, more pointedly, the scenes of rape that are portrayed. I understand that those events are part of the brutality of the time period, not to mention vital the plot, but it is more than a little unsettling to experience them through the lustful, violent eyes of the perpetrator.

There is little subtly in the writing—people don't seem to have layers of motive; rather, their thoughts and intentions are spelled out so deliberately that one might imagine the readers are as dull-witted as some of the characters. And Follett has a tendency to repeat things, character traits or past events, as if we haven't just read about them. Clarity in writing is good, but not to the point that it condescends to the reader. As well, there is an impulsive streak that runs common in all of the characters, where sometimes they just have to do something even if it runs contrary to their personality or all common sense. To me it felt that the characters were being forced to serve the plot.

Behind all this, there is a greater, structural problem. The simplest structure that a beginning writer learns is the try/fail cycle. You give your character a goal and have them try to achieve it through some means. They fail, try again, fail, until finally they succeed. End of story. This is great for ten pages, but a novel that brushes up against the thousand page mark needs considerably more depth.

Now, The Pillars of the Earth doesn't follow quite this formula, but what it does is just as linear. The goal is clear from the beginning: build a cathedral. And the narrative, by and large, follows a predictable pattern: throw an obstacle in the way of their plans, and then overcome said obstacle. Repeat. Every catastrophe is solved by the end of the chapter. But you can't take that much satisfaction in it, because you soon realize that there's just going to be a new obstacle in the next chapter.

Perhaps I am too harsh. There is a lot going on, and if some things feel repetitive in the abstract, Follett has done a great job of making each obstacle unique and, more importantly, follow logically from what has come before and from the circumstances of the wider world. Everything takes place against the backdrop of a civil war, and the politics and maneuvering of the various contenders for the throne are fascinating. And besides the cathedral, there are some compelling story lines that are woven across the novel, and Follett does a good job of bringing them all together.

The Pillars of the Earth does achieve the epic scope that it strives for. You'll be in awe of the cathedral, but more than that you'll be touched by the many lives that surround it: kings and earls, monks and bishops, peasants and merchants and craftsmen and all those that help it to come into being.
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04/11 marked as: read

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