This is a thumping, great read at 850 pages. We meet a clutch of families who are all vastly different in terms of class, outlook, values etc. I have to admit at the outset that this is the first Ken Follett book I’ve read even although two of his previous books are in my ever-growing ‘to read’ pile. So although I know of him, my reading expectations were wide-open.
When I came across several pages of Cast of Characters I inwardly groaned. Why? Well, I can appreciate the need for it in a book of non-fiction but I always think it's a bit of a risk in a work of fiction. Will the reader be bothered to read it? Will they want to keep flicking back and forth? The novel opens in the grinding poverty of the Welsh mining valleys. Follett concentrates on one particular family, the Williams, so the reader gets to peep inside their world. It’s a world of cramped housing and the constant drudgery of the womenfolk and the detailed working lives of the miners. Here’s something to chew on – teenager Billy Williams was at school one day – then down the pits the next. And he’s only thirteen.
And right from the beginning I warmed to Follett’s style. Non-sensational, when he could so easily be. The reader gets to share Billy’s very first working day down the pit: the dangerous conditions, the long hours, right down to the role of those poor pit ponies. The picture was drawn and I stepped right into the set.
Then we meet the various other families. Welsh aristocracy, a rather enigmatic German, a couple of poor Russian brothers and we cross countries and continents on a regular basis as we enter and leave their stories. Granted Follett has certainly given himself the space to put meat on the bones of his characters and as a result all came across as credible. They are a mixed bunch and as the story deepens we see some connections between several of the characters. Follett cleverly interweaves his characters and gives his reader intrigue and interest in spades.
The reader is also presented with succinct comments on key moments in economic and political history – but usually of the latter. So we have the machinations of politics writ large running throughout this book, whether it’s Great Britain, Europe or Russia. A large portion of this book is spent on the horrors of war. The huge numbers of casualties, the bravery of so many young men barely out of short trousers and the waiting… endless waiting of their wives, girlfriends, mothers back home. Trying to get on with their lives while not knowing if their loved ones are dead or alive. This tension adds yet another dimension to the story.
I really took to Follett’s writing approach. Not over the top. Personally, I thought he was spot on. With the amount of research required for this book, I could understand him wanting to throw everything into the book regardless. He gives the impression of effortless writing – and of course it’s anything but. He has gained another fan in yours truly and I shall now rummage for his books and read them. In fact, his style is such I was half-way through and didn’t have to refer to the Cast of Characters at all. The story involved me and carried me along nicely with it.
All I would say is, please do not be put off by the sheer volume and size of this book. It is extremely reader-friendly and it’s very easy to get drawn in at an early stage. I loved it. First-class and a cracking good read and has, in my opinion, all the elements a good work of fiction should have. Recommended.
— Louise Laurie, The Bookbag, 30 September 2010