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Fall of Giants

Ken Follett chronicles 20th century in massive trilogy

Ken Follett stands in the exclusive little band of popular writers whose names appear on the covers of their books in type that’s bigger than the type that spells out the books’ titles.

So that makes the arrival of Follett’s latest, Fall of Giants, a big deal. And the word “big” fits. Consider that Fall of Giants packs almost 1,000 pages, sells for a whopping $36 – and is just the first volume of a trilogy. If the two succeeding volumes follow suit, readers will be investing $108 (plus taxes) in cash and heaven knows how many hours of reading time.

Then again, if the last two volumes follow suit, the time and money will be happily spent. Fall of Giants is fascinating, in a big way.

Follett has titled this series “The Century Trilogy”. The century in question is the 20th. Follett apparently intends to give readers the sweeping history of that century in the form of a novel that follows five families – one American, two British, one German and one Russian.

That’s a big job. But Fall of Giants suggests that Follett is up to the task.

His tale opens in 1911 in a Welsh mining town. A boy in one of Follett’s two British families is turning 13 and thus is quitting school to go to work underground. The mines occupy land owned by Follett’s other British family – aristocrats who divide their time between London and their country manor outside the Welsh town.

So before readers get into the history of the century, they get a sniff of its sociology – facial powder in m’lady’s dressing room, coal powder that the miners suck in and cough up. Some characters sip brandy from snifters in the earl’s parlor, while others swill pints of beer in a pub called the Two Crowns. This stark class division seems to be a permanent part of British life.

But in just a few years, an assassination in faraway Sarajevo will begin to change all that. In July 1914, a duchess in London says, “How silly to think that great nations such as Germany and Great Britain would go to war over Serbia.” Silly, but sadly true. Most of Fall of Giants describes how Europe gives itself a gutshot wound we call World War I.

About those other families: The American family lives in Buffalo, N.Y. – and in Washington, where the father is a U.S. senator and the son works in the White House as a presidential aide. The German family lives in Berlin but has a son in London as a military attaché in the German Embassy. The Russian family lives in St. Petersburg, where two brothers labor in a locomotive factory.

Naturally, the war mixes Follett’s characters together, some in the bedroom, others on the battlefield. Are most of these coincidental crossings a stretch? You bet. But do they make all that history go down more easily? Again, you bet.

You’ll follow one character into the bloodletting of the first day of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, and learn why the lack of imagination among Britain’s upper class in uniform caused the death of 20,000 working-class soldiers on that one day alone. After the war, you’ll follow two other characters across revolutionary Russia and learn how Britain and the United States tried to undo the Bolshevik triumph. Throughout the book, you’ll sit in political meetings in Britain and see how the war’s wave of social change opened up a once tightly closed system.

In the front of the book, Follett offers readers a roster of his 123 characters. Twenty of them are real-life figures, like President Woodrow Wilson (who comes across as an geopolitical idealist and a commonplace racist) and the young Winston Churchill, about whom one observer sighs, “Sometimes Winston imagined he had devised a policy when all he had done was coin a phrase.”

In November 1923, near the book’s end, Follett’s German remarks to his wife that a beer hall putsch in Munich has failed and that its leader, some fellow named Adolf Hitler, is in jail. She replies in relief, “Good. Thank God that’s over.”

But we know better, and so does Follett. See you in Volume II.

Harry Levins, The St. Louis-Post Dispatch, 26 September 2010