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Fall of Giants

A world made new

Ken Follett has been a favorite writer of mine for a bunch of years. He has created some dozen and a half fine adventure novels – which contain spies and Nazis and assorted other villains. On Wings of Eagles and Hammer of Eden come quickly to mind.

A few years ago he blew me away with The Pillars of Earth, an account of the construction of a gothic cathedral in the thirteenth century.

Now he is at it again with Fall of Giants.

I just finished all 985 pages of what is promised to be the first of three volumes in his “Century trilogy” – three books on the twentieth century. The first book is a compelling story told through the eyes of folks who become, in Follett’s deft prose, supporting characters to the new century. In fact a major theme of the novel is the empowerment of the disenfranchised – from the fight for women’s suffrage to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

Follett gives the reader a “Cast of Characters” at the start of the novel – six pages and 125 names.

Fall of Giants links five families from England, Wales, America, Germany, and Russia.

Billy Williams on his thirteenth birthday opens the story as he goes into the Welsh coal mine at Aberdeen June 22, 1911. On that day King George V was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London.

Two years six months later Earl Fitzherbert, the ninth-richest man in Britain, entertains the king and powerful men from around Europe at his estate Ty Gwyn near Aberdeen. Fitzherbert has been made wealthy from the royalties of the coal mines under his estate. Billy’s sister Ethyl Williams is housekeeper for the earl.

A new world is being born by novel’s end.

In Westminster the first Labour government is formed, and for the first time women are among the members of parliament.

In Russia the Bolsheviks have ousted the Czar.

In America organized crime is beginning to import Canadian whiskey.

And in Germany, amid rampant inflation, Adolph Hitler languishes in jail following the Munich beer hall putsch.

“Thank God,” sighs Maude, who worked in England for women’s suffrage and married her German lover, “that’s over.”

Follett follows the adage of Elmore Leonard – eliminating all the parts readers would skip over. Quite a feat in this long novel.

Billy closes the novel thirteen years later from a campaign platform with “Fellow workers, … we are the future.”

Give us the next volume to get past the depression and World War II and our history lesson in the twentieth century will be approaching completion.

I am often wary of authors who try to give us the big, sweeping, panoramic picture. I remember the bicentennial series on America by John Jakes. Remember the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland who rushed across the field checking his watch and exclaiming “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!” With Jakes one suspects him of checking his watch and shouting, “Get out of the way! It’s 1835 and I must get to Texas!”

None of that with Follett in this first volume. His is a canvas as large at the Sistine Chapel, but he paints with the economy of the designer of aircraft – beauty lies in what remains after the nonessential elements are stripped away.

Follett gives us the essential curve of history – perhaps the highest work of the historical novelist. In this first volume we see the start of our century in a new and clearer way.

Tom Chaney, Columbia Magazine, 17 October 2010