Ken Follett’s third and final installment in the Century Trilogy continues the epic, sweeping story begun in Fall of Giants and continued in Winter of the World, of the destinies of the original five Welsh, English, German, Russian, and American families now tightly entwined by bonds of marriage and friendship.
Using the same wizardry evident in earlier volumes, Follett puts the right person in the right place at exactly the right time, including a Russian journalist in Cuba during the missile crisis, an English ex-pat sent by a U.S. news agency to cover the fall of Communism, and an escapee from East Berlin who ends up in San Francisco, lost in the Haight-Ashbury drug culture. By ushering a cast of hundreds across the world over three generations and 90 years of history, Ken Follett has achieved the literary equivalent of herding cats.
Follett starts out small but symbolic. Rebecca Hoffmann is a teacher in East Berlin whose innocence was saved by her adopted mother during the war in a shockingly memorable scene in Winter of the World. She is summoned to be interviewed by the Stasi, only to discover exactly how closely the East German secret police are monitoring her and her family. Follett then switches to the U.S. where George Jakes, the Harvard-educated African-American son of a single mother, determines to join a Freedom Ride only to witness true racism.
The original families — mostly lowborn — have evolved across the generations to rise in power and status. Rebecca the innocent teacher lives with a family deeply involved in a liberal political party behind the Berlin Wall. George Jakes, perhaps the most finely drawn character of the entire series, is the illegitimate son of a senator of Russian background, a man who refuses to openly acknowledge him. Both these characters will rise in the world, some to very high places indeed.
Each of Ken Follett’s previous installments in the Century trilogy covers approximately 30 years. Technically this latest installment covers the sixties to the late 1980s, but three-quarters of the book takes place in the sixties. The last two decades are covered as if skipping a rock across a lake, touching only the highlights: Nixon’s impeachment, the Iran-Contra affair, the rise of Gorbachev, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The familiarity of the era saps some excitement from the narrative but gives rise to a complementary anticipation. The high points are expected — the Cuban missile crisis, the rising involvement in Vietnam, the three shocking assassinations. Follett’s intensive coverage of the civil rights movement in the U.S. forms a strongly emotional through-line that he caps in the epilogue with the election of President Barack Obama.
The politics here, as in the other series, lean strongly to the left. Right-leaning readers may be put off by the fact that any conservative-minded politician — whether in Berlin or Moscow or the U.S. — tends to be an autocrat with a failed sexual life and a propensity to do things like torment old lovers or seek out masseuses for sexual gratification. A little less mustache-twirling on the part of the villains — and perhaps more openness to alternative points of view —would have created a more nuanced and balanced picture.
But Follett’s aim is scope. He’s so busy painting a sweeping canvas that he doesn’t always fill in the shadows. The result is an ambitious, masterful, page-turning, utterly absorbing series based on the theme of evolving political systems. Thus the focus is on right-thinking people throwing off repression and struggling to establish truly representative governments.
This last volume focuses those efforts even deeper, not only on the struggle between capitalism, democracy, and communism, but on the struggle to open the minds and hearts of all people to true equality — of any race, sexual orientation, and to a regrettable lesser degree, gender.
In the epilogue, George Jake’s granddaughter, watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama, asks why her granddad is crying. She’s told that “it’s a long story”. Yes, it’s a long, story. But the effect of reading Follett’s sprawling masterpiece is to realize how very far the world has come.
— Reviewed by Lisa Verge Higgins in the New York Journal of Books