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So. Well. Being serious about this, I am trying to pick up writing about some of the stuff I do and read. Well. Read for certain values of read.

Let’s put this behind first – I didn’t actually read the century trilogy, I listened to the audio book. I do that a lot, these days. When your way to work doubles, all of a sudden, you have to find a way to spend your time.

And a way to still enjoy books.

Go figure.

So, I picked up the century trilogy by Ken Follett. Or, more precisely, I made my parents give them to me for christmas. It worked, and off I was.

Why I wanted to read it in the first place?

I guess it was kind of twofold. First, I do have a soft spot for historical novels. Hang on. Scratch that. I do have a soft spot for well researched historical novels. Think Kazuo Ishiguro, Robert Harris (yeah. I know. Very different people). Not Iny Lorentz.

Second reason – those who know me better know I’m a sucker for good lines, and I simply adored the “Fall of the giants” title for the first of the books (and even more the german one which is “Sturz der Titanen”, actually translating as “Fall of the titans”), which is such a poignant description that kind of sums everthing up that made the first world war the end of an era.

But I digress.

From here on, there be spoilers.

The content

The ambition of the century trilogy is to give a sort of kaleidoscope of the main shifts and changes of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of five interlinked families. The three books “Fall of the Titans”, “Winter of the world” and “Edge of Eternity” (which in german carries the completely different title translating as “children of freedom”) cover the ground of the first world war, second world war and times between the end of the second world war and the fall of the Berlin Wall respectively. By choosing two families from Wales (one noble, one common), one from Germany/Austria, one from Russia and one from the USA, and having them intermarry, emigrate and immigrate, meet additional people to be brought into the family tree, bringing in their own connections and meet time and again throughout the turns of the century, Follett manages to cover a lot of ground with respect to historical events. The focus is clearly on Europe and the US, other parts of the world are barely skimmed, and only in framework of how it affected Europe or US.

All families are, to some extent, political or at least ambitions, which allows them to move close to the key events of the century, be it Verdun, the Russian Revolution or the murder of JFK.

Indeed, that’s what can be said of the plot, for there is no real plot as such. History provides the narrative and the greater framework of things, and the voyage of the characters is, more or less, the voyage of history.

The composition

Here, I’d first and foremost have to applaud the composition as such. This is really well done. The way the families are set up and intermingled does feel natural, also the way of how they occasionally meet here and there and get, everyone in their own way, involved into the chief events of the century.

Follett places his people really well, taking into account the social and political frameworks of the respective countries and this allows them to move with the flow of history, showing the occurrences through the eyes of his protagonists.

The composition of the text should also to be applauded. Changing viewpoints so drastically throughout the novel takes some careful composing, and Follett did well at composing the story such, that he stuck long enough with one viewpoint to draw the reader (or listener…) in, while switching often enough to allow the reader to keep a good connection to all the characters and their respective situations. He managed time, narrative and development well on a global scale.

The story itself was gripping – although I can’t quite pinpoint what made it so – and I enjoyed the books on a global scale.

The history

It feels well researched. I say that at a second glance.

I felt a bit bugged at the shallowness of it during the “Fall of the Giants”, but that was until I realized that in parallel, I am (at glacial speed) reading Christopher Clarke’s “Sleepwalkers”, which, in its essence, is of course a history book, not a novel, and the comparison is truly unfair. Once I realized that, I could better appreciate the work Follett had done on getting his historical facts and figures in order, which is globally very well done. It does seem biased some times (and has received quite some criticism in that respect) – after reading this book there’s no mistake whatsoever on Follet’s political views – but that is something that is excusable in my book. It is a novel, not a history book, and thus entitled to author’s opinion. He’s not writing the next “sleepwalkers” (ok, he was earlier, I think). He’s writing a story. And for that, it seems fine.

I do know that the actual historical facts are not always completely correctly displayed… but to me that didn’t really take away from the narrative. Probably mostly because I didn’t nerd enough to actually do my research there.

The style is flowing, easy going and well to understand even in the morning over a cup of tea on the way to work, it’s flowing easily and naturally, although I could have done with a little more poetry.

The narrative

I’m a bit at loss what to write here, because there… isn’t really any. The purpose of the book is to give Follett’s view of 20th century history through the eyes of a set of well selected protagonists. The personal stories and lives of the protagonists evolve in parallel, but there is no underlying plot, no family story to which the history proves the background narrative.

Indeed, it is a sequence of scenarios, with the clear goal of placing a character into this or that historical situation, and the character and its development will follow.

I suppose that is what Follett intended. It doesn’t add up to that much tension, obviously, on the other hand, the history of the century itself is gripping enough to keep going.

The characters

Now, that’s the biggest can of worms.

When it comes to characters, there’s light and shadow (more shadow than light, I’m afraid….).
The characters were good when they were nuanced and felt realistic, worked within their time and were nuanced in their motives.

I did like Ethel Williams, who, to me, showed the right mixture of sass and roots in the time she was living in, playing the system best that she could. The moment where she bargains with Fitzwilliam is indeed one of the (lamentably few) great character moments of the book.

Same for Grigory Peshkov, who, all things considered, feels like a quite well-rounded character to me. He’s moral and good, but not to the sticky-sweet point of some of the other characters, and he’s more of an involuntary hero than anything else.

Jasper Murray was another good example, a man of, say, gray morals, ultimately selfish but with bouts of decency streaked in.

I could have done with a few more characters like that…

Reading the century trilogy, I had a revelation. I have read both the highly lauded “pillars of the world” and “World without end” by the same author, and it never really stuck with me. The history was interesting, the narrative okay, but somehow I didn’t feel as dragged into the story as I usually expect to be. At that point I couldn’t really pinpoint it, but now, indeed, I can.

Many of the characters feel anachronistic.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a good feminist story, and yes, I clearly am a sucker for strong female roles in a narrative. But in a book that does put some emphasis of historical correctness, or at least Follett’s view on history, the characters are too modern for my taste. And unlike historical inaccuracies in a narrative itself, that one really bothers me.

Yes, give me souffragettes, give me rebels. Give me visionaries male and female alike, give me people that see beyound what people of their time would. But let them be rooted in their time. You don’t make them great by just ignoring the obstacle, you make them great by letting them outgrow the obstacles. In this narrative, we usually don’t see the people overcome the obstacle. Like, out of their own. So very often circumstances remove the obstacles for them. That doesn’t make up for much of a sympathetic tale.

I missed that. Like, a lot.

I cannot help comparing Maude, the Welsh noble daughter and Souffragette to Sybil, Mary or Lady Isobel of Downton Abbey (only to give a few examples where I thought it was much better done), and the comparison isn’t favourable. All of them are feminist figures, in a way, but Sybil or Isobel feel much more rooted in their time for me (although – yes. Historical accuracy of Downton Abbey is also a thing of debate). They stretch the boundaries of the given, each in their own way, but they don’t ignore them as in Follett’s narrative more often than not they do. To be fair, Maude became much more realistic in “Winter of the World”, when she was in Germany.

Also, on a similar note, all of the characters that Ken Follett devised as (morally) good seem to be gifted with the strange gift of foresight. Or they all have a magic cristal balls in their drawing room. All of them did see the problems of a particular situation coming early on, and of course in line with history that would prove them right.

This is most striking in the russian part of the narrative, where I simply cannot conceive how this relatively open-minded, reform-oriented, humanist family, who rose close to the ranks of power in Russia, could have survived in Stalinist Russia is completely beyound me. I do get it – to some extent – for the Chruschtschow era, but Stalin? Really? Also, we never learn how they – especially Wolodja – actually rose to power, except for the laurels of the father, who did indeed do courageous things in the russian revolution. That’s kind of grating because he and his son go against the system quite often; but we never see them actually working for the system. Probably because Follett wanted to spare his good characters the seedier details of Stalinist Russia, but that feels kind of cheap.

The “good” characters are often extremely good. Saints, almost. At least in parts. George Jakes is probably the most annoying one of the lot (by a mile actually). Seriously – the arc is interesting in itself because I didn’t know so much about the freedom ride and corresponding events, but the character is moral and good almost to the point of stupidity. Gah. Boring.

In contrast to this, all characters not perceived as “good” usually get payback one way or the other, by getting caught up in one of the many scandals of the century (Cam Dewar), find an early death (Boy Fitzherbert) or end up lonely one way or the other (Lord Fitzherbert, Lev Peshkov).

A few escape that fate by way of redemption (Daisy Peshkov, chiefly, to some extent also Cam Dewar), but generally, there’s a lot of karma of the “you get what you deserve” variety inside that book.

And that felt too black and white for me.

A word on politics

The century trilogy is not only a historical novel, it does give a (quite left leaning) political view on the turns of the century. Now that in itself is absolutely not a bad thing, but even to me who is in morals and views, I think, quite close to Follett’s it felt… grating. I don’t like that being slammed into my face with the subtlety of a sledge hammer over the course of three books, thank you very much.

It’s totally fair to sprout your political views into a novel you are writing. That’s what part of being an author means. An author isn’t a journalist, a novel isn’t an article, it’s not even a commentary. It is a story of the author’s making, and if he choses to assign it to a certain policy, that is all good and well. If that’s what he has to say, that’s what he should say.

I just take the right, if it feels that unbiased and blatant, to be personally a little bored and annoyed by it.

Strange, actually, because most of the things he probably considers correct (or highlights as correct) in the narrative, I could agree to, but the simple brute force of hammering his point home is quite enough to get me off balance.

A summary of the above

Not too bad, not too glorious. I find myself basing my judgment on what the book is supposed to be.

  • As a chronicle of the 20th century it is globally a good book

  • As a family history, it can stand as well

  • As a story with believable characters telling the narrative of protagonists, I am afraid, it is not quite up to what I would like…