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Fall of Giants

History recaptured

Billy and Ethel are from a Welsh working-class family who move from roughing it out in the coal mines to the world of radical Left-wing politics; Earl Fitzherbert is a conservative English nobleman who wants things to stay the way they are and is itching to prove himself in the field of battle; his sister, Maud, strives for peace and women’s suffrage; Walter von Ulrich is a German aristocrat and patriot who is also a spy for his country at the embassy in London; Grigori and Lev Peshkov are Russian brothers brutalised by the Tsar’s secret police; and Gus Dewar is an idealistic American who works for president Woodrow Wilson.

These are the main characters in Fall of Giants, Ken Follett’s phenomenal first instalment in his Century Trilogy. Their lives are inexorably entwined and through their experiences, we witness the tumultuous events at the beginning of the 20th century which shaped the world we live in today – the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the struggle for women’s rights.

Walter is torn between his fondness for England, love for (and secret marriage to) Maud on the one hand and his duty to Germany on the other. While Grigori ends up as a prominent member of the Bolsheviks, Lev finds himself an unwilling recruit in the United States Army. Gus’s job brings him in contact with the likes of Walter and Fitz, while his love for a Russian immigrant’s daughter pits him against Lev. Fitz, who has an illegitimate child with his former housekeeper, Ethel, finds himself heckled at every opportunity by her enraged brother, Billy, who is in the army.

Follett’s brilliance lies in the construction of the story. Despite their different backgrounds and nationalities, the author arranges for his characters’ paths to cross so effortlessly that the reader is left to marvel at his craft. This skill is matched by the quality of his research (hands up anyone who knew that the Tsar’s conscripts addressed their incompetent generals as Most High Radiance?) You are almost transported back to the early 1900s.

Some of the best dialogues are when the fictional characters come in contact with historical figures (Fitz with Churchill; Walter with Lenin). As Follett told Weekend Review, the historical figures did actually utter those words, albeit in a different context.

For a global generation brought up to believe that the Germans were responsible for the mayhem in the first half of the 20th century, Fall of Giants will come as a surprise. So much so that the reader is unsure whom to support in this titanic struggle for world domination.

Follett tries to give the other side of the story, too, through the experiences of the Von Ulrich family, providing explanations for why the Germans invaded Russia and France. He also spares a thought for the thousands of soldiers from the colonies – from British India to French North Africa – who were forced to serve and die in a war that was not theirs to fight.

Follett, a writer par excellence with hits such as Eye of the Needle and Triple to his name, published his hugely successful historical saga The Pillars of the Earth in 1989, followed by the sequel World Without End. Watch out for the other two instalments in the Century Trilogy, due in 2012 and 2014, respectively.

Omar Shariff, The Gulf News Weekend Review, 1 October 2010