(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 5th December, 2010)
Title: Fall of Giants
Author: Ken Follett
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Price: Rs. 350
An epic of love, hatred, war and revolution declares the tagline, and I prepare myself for an orgy of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, and Frederick Forsyth. However, the opening is charmingly reminiscent of Thomas Hardy.
Fall of Giants, the first book of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, begins in a little Welsh mining hamlet, where a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old is readying himself to go down the quarry for the first time. Just as the dreariness of the mine, and the easy possibility of death, which the miners’ families have accepted and even experienced, are rousing the reader’s protective instincts, the scene changes dramatically.
Ty Gwyn, the luxurious country house of Earl Edward Fitzherbert, is home to ornate furnishings, gourmet food, and Etonian accents. As the earl hosts a royal visit, the dialogues play out like a well-scripted Hollywood movie – not realistic, but entertaining, with a well-prepared cocktail of bombast, repartee, balefulness and rivalry.
The scope of the book is huge. Set in the period 1911-1924, which saw the First World War and the Russian Revolution, the arena spans the globe – which, at that time, meant Russia, Europe and America. The author does justice to each of these settings, with vivid imagery that transports the reader to the place of action.
One gets the feeling Follett could, if he tried hard enough, transcend the barrier between pulp fiction and literature. But, rather like filmmaker Mani Ratnam, he seems to graze the border, while choosing to stay on the side that guarantees a larger audience and a bigger paycheque.
Although Follett’s detailed descriptions of the geography of a coal mine and the conventions of army command are useful, even necessary, for the reader to be able to relate to the storyline, there are several superfluous explanations. Who, one wonders, needs to be told what the Big Ben is?
But the aspiration that everyone, irrespective of education and lateral thinking skills, should be able to relate to the contents of the novel is perhaps the reason two members of the London gentry discuss politics before...ahem, gratifying each other in a box at the opera.
Even so, one feels the annotations might have been more discerning. Rather the follow up the line She said in English, ‘He falls to such perusal of my face, as he would draw it’ with a thinly-disguised elucidation such as He smiled, ‘We’re not Hamlet and Ophelia, so please don’t go to a nunnery’, the author could have chosen to go with a footnote (or left it for the reader to Google.)
However, most characters are three-dimensional, and appeal to the reader’s empathy or sympathy throughout the novel. The grey shades are expertly portrayed, especially among members of the British aristocracy, and one is often torn between wishing ill on and rooting for a particular character.
While the author admits to having taken certain liberties in mixing real and fictional characters in his cast, the interactions are believable.
What seems incongruent at times is the language. One of the characters is reported to have thought, For God’s sake, get to the point! – a phrase that doesn’t quite suit the vocabulary of a well-educated gentleman in the early twentieth century.
And even though Bill Bryson insists the four-letter-word that rhymes with ‘duck’ was first used in the 1800s, it does feel strange to come across an earl employing it in a Russian palace, in the presence of his wife.
The romances may be kitschy, but Ken Follett does take the reader by surprise in the execution of their expression. You would not expect, for instance, a Lady to orgasm in a library – though the event has nothing to do with her love for books...or scrolls.
Some of Follett’s lines are delightfully wry and pithy. Try this - A numbered list was always a good idea: people felt they had to listen until you got to the end. Later, he goes on to find a similarity between babies and revolutions - you can start one, but can’t control how it will turn out. Which is why a line that reads They had not known all this personal stuff disappoints even more. When an author is capable of so much more, why scribble in haste?
The same philosophy might apply to this poem:
Though I suffer from frustrations
A boost to our relations
When he comes
The narrative is gripping, but the reader is left feeling it could have been crisper; maudlin elements such as the death of a soldier a few minutes before the armistice is signed could have been avoided. Painstakingly long descriptions could have done with some editing.
All said, though, I’m yet to come across a novel that mixes history, sex and drama in such a compelling manner.