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Fall of Giants

Follett begins epic 20th century tale

For all its structural and thematic magnitude, Ken Follett has written an expansive soap opera set among the profound events of the early 20th century. Fall of Giants is the first of three novels that follow the lives of families who are either in conflict with their age or who are part of a wider battle for progress, peace and the reshaping of the modern world.

Fall of Giants, a surprisingly detailed and charged re-creation of the period between the end of the 19th century and the years following World War I, overflows with characters attempting to delineate their responsibilities, whether to realize them or to evade them; with those in pursuit of enlightenment or seeking to manipulate it; and with some people simply attempting to understand what they should do to survive.

Siblings, Earl “Fitz” and Maud Fitzherbert, have inherited vast wealth and cultivate disparate views of their times and have oppositional connections to greater events. Ethel and Billy Williams are from the working class of coal miners and domestics on the thousand acres owned by the Fitzherberts in Wales.

Walter von Ulrich is a German diplomat with strong connections to England and critic of his father’s old ways of promoting his country’s standing among other nations. Brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov were orphaned at an early age by actions taken as a result of the unhindered brutality of the Russian aristocracy; one brother will make it to America and small-time gangsterhood, the other to a wary role in the cynical deformity of socialism that was engineered in Russia by Lenin.

Gus Dewar is an American diplomat who leaves service in Woodrow Wilson’s White House to serve his country in the bloody trenches of a disintegrating Europe. It is through these lives Follett begins to tell a tale of the last century.

Much space is in this first novel is given over to international politics leading to World War I and the cruelties of the aristocracy that led to the Russian Revolution. These watershed events Follett manages to make comprehensible without downplaying their sizeable complexity. Central themes in the book also include women’s suffrage in Great Britain and the growing workers’ movements for social justice – including working conditions, which are examined through the lives of families on either side of the debate.

In Fall of Giants, Follett entwines fiction and factual events well. Creating characters of numerous, actual historical figures is a big risk. How do you write about Trotsky without being facile? Follett successfully assails the dilemma from a couple of angles, most importantly by knowing a lot about the period but not making the reader aware of how arduously he is working.

Follett’s substantial descriptions work remarkably well over the sometimes clunky dialogue within intimate settings, where speeches at times seem overblown. Still, thankfully, Follett avoids old-style speech, favoring more current phrasing, which aids character believability, which is needed to carry the story over so many pages. Despite some of its transitional and melodramatic similarities to episodic fiction, the duty of readers here is to be absorbed by history and to forge a connection to Follett’s fictional creations beyond dialogue that is only slightly distracting.

Fall of Giants provides us with no glimmers of hope; connections are cut and there are only rare instances of justice done. The book ends in 1924, and observes Germany struggling to live under the punishments of the Versailles Treaty and further social destruction as the National Socialist movement enters the consciousness of the people. This is a dark novel, motivated by an unsparing view of human nature and a clear-eyed scrutiny of an ideal peace. It is not the least of Follett’s feats that the reader finishes this near 1 000-page book intrigued and wanting more.

M.E. Collins, The Chicago Sun-Times, 26 September 2010