This time, Ken Follett has taken on the early 20th century.
At almost 1,000 pages, “Fall of Giants”, weaves the fictional lives of five families and some 100 secondary characters through the years between June 1911 and January 1924. He begins with a mining disaster in Wales and the stirrings of World War I, and ends with the consequences of the Russian Revolution and the portents of World War II.
By the final pages, we’ve seen the children born who will go on to carry us through the next two books of a planned trilogy.
History is the plot: World War I (the political maneuvering and the bloody battles), the feminist movement, the right to vote, the rise of workers unions, the Bolsheviks’ climb to power. We know what happened. Follett wants us to see how, creating characters to take us through this history.
Billy Williams, 13, a Welsh coal miner, will fight in the trenches. Ethel, his sister, a housekeeper for the English Earl Fitzherbert, will face crisis at home. Walter von Ulrich, a German diplomat figures in as Fitzherbert's friend – the men will fight on opposing sides, one wanting this war; the other, peace.
Fitzherbert’s sister, Lady Maud, is a socialist who will fall in love with a German. Grigori and Lev Peshkov, Russian brothers, will be separated and lead quite different lives. The “good” guys are moral and hardworking; the “bad” guys, self-serving and surprisingly inept.
Some of these figures are memorable, others not. Too often, they have long conversations, telling each other what they already know so we’ll know it. At those times, they become props, and less compelling.
Yet there is a great deal of story here, and history enough to keep us reading. The novel is well researched. The war feels particular in the details, familiar in its scope. The fear and bravery of soldiers, the posturing and perverse mistakes of leaders, the new methods of slaughter and the loss of so many lives are haunting.
The slaughter at Somme, horrific enough, is followed by Telegram Day. After whole companies are wiped out, often composed of boys and men from the same village, death notices arrive by telegram. A boy on a bike makes the deliveries, stopping at house after house along the street. Townspeople stand outside, hoping the boy on the bike will pass them by.
Follett is best in the war scenes. After hundreds of men make a charge into German machine-gun fire, all dying, he ends the scene: “Another whistle blew, and the second line advanced.”
Still, the author of the crowd-pleasing “Eye of the Needle” and “Pillars of the Earth” can falter with his prose. “However,” he writes, “she badly wanted to do something for Walter.”
And he treads heavily on the romance writing: “He groaned, closed his eyes, took her in his arms, and surrendered.” Or, “Her love for Walter had awakened within her a sleeping lion of physical desire, a beast that was both stimulated and tormented by their stolen kisses and furtive fumbles.” And this cringe-worthy bit: “He dreaded the thought of a baby’s head cruelly stretching the narrow passage he loved so much.”
But Follett does provide action and plotting galore. Reading for story, this book delivers a good sense of the early 20th century. Many will enjoy “Fall of Giants” and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.
— Sarah Willis, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 28 September 2010