Corrupt nobles, scheming bishops, thieving peasants, fornicating monks, love withheld, love lost, murder, petty mindedness, hunger, poverty, jealousy and – oh yes – the Black Death. If you can think of a theme or story, chances are that it’s already in Ken Follett’s new door-stopping tome, World Without End.
At more than 1,100 pages, the sequel to his 1989 bestseller The Pillars Of The Earth is not exactly your standard ‘beach reads’. But it is perfect for long, rainy autumn days, immersed as it is in an incredibly detailed medieval city and the lives within.
It was the equally-huge The Pillars Of The Earth that launched a fascinating account of the early medieval English town of Kingsbridge, located between Plymouth, Torbay and Dartmoor, as it grew up from a cluster of hovels into a city.
The central character in that many-stranded story was, as much as anything, the new cathedral rising in its midst. Instead of just knights and damsels, it was the story of people like Tom Builder, the master craftsman, which held sway and the ‘ordinary’ townsfolk and peasants, as well as the gentry and religious orders.
The stink and sounds of the cathedral and slums around it are revisited 200 years later in the rich narrative that threads through World Without End. Tom Builder’s descendants are knights, earls, priors and merchants, all vying to revive a wool trade and grappling over who really controls the city. And war with the French hovers on the horizon.
There is the disgraced noble family living off the Priory and whose sons, Merthin the apprentice and Ralph the squire, are trying to restore their father’s fortunes. While Merthin is a gifted builder, envied and opposed by the traditional guildsmen, his brother bullies and turns corrupt with power.
The homeless Gwenda loves a farmer who is engaged to another and has to thieve for her good-for-nothing father. Meanwhile, the bitter Petranilla – spurned by the Earl – plots and plans for power through her monk son and her niece refuses marriage and dreams of becoming a doctor: a taboo.
With the collapse of a vital bridge linking the powerful Priory to its waning Fleece Fair a struggle emerges between the powerful and scheming new Prior, Godwyn, and the Earl Roland.
Follett weaves smaller, individual struggles through these larger plot lines, creating a complex yet seductive read that soon draws you in. And looming behind it all, way off, is the approaching terror of the plague.
The first book featured some explicit sexuality, including a rape scene (it was banned by one American school) and World Without End continues in that ‘realistic’ style, with a peasant selling his daughter to outlaws and lords abusing their position to take ‘pleasure’ with maidens.
It’s almost impossible to sum up a single plot line as the book twists and turns through its myriad characters. But that is its strength – though the size is daunting, it really does bring the struggling city and its denizens to life.
“Life and death went on. Children were born and old people died. On Sunday Emma Butcher attacked her adulterous husband Edward with his largest cleaver in a fit of jealous rage. On Monday one of Bess Hampton’s chickens went missing and was found boiling in a pot over Glynnie Thompson’s kitchen fire, whereupon Glynnie was stripped and flogged by John Constable.”
You really care what happens to the people in this story: you live and breathe the characters from their childhood and, in some cases, share the secrets they’re all so desperately hiding.
— Nick Ryan, Daily Express, 5 October 2007