Book review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Open up a Ken Follett book and you’ll find that all life is there...

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 4th October 2010, 7:00 am

Little wonder then that his sensational novels set in medieval England, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, have become international bestsellers.

Follett is never one to do things by halves and his latest epic is another blockbuster in every sense of the word.

Fall of Giants, the first of his much-anticipated Century Trilogy, runs to 850 pages, weighs a staggering 2lb 11oz, boasts a cast list of 125 and propels us headlong into one of the most turbulent periods in history.

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But don’t let that deter you because this heavyweight packs a punch that keeps the story rolling and the pages turning.

Follett’s amazing assembly of characters includes kings, emperors, aristocrats, politicians, revolutionaries, workers and servants. Some are real people, some are fictional, some like the world just as it is, others long for change, but all are facing that great leveller – war.

And this is the Great War of 1914-18, the conflict that brought slaughter on a hitherto unknown scale, toppled dynasties, gave birth to revolution, helped to emancipate women and changed the world order forever.

Is it possible to fit all that history into a novel without losing sight of the personal? In the hands of master storyteller Follett, it certainly is.

‘Either the scene did happen, or it might have; either these words were used, or they might have been,’ he tells us.

Fall of Giants follows five families from England, Wales, America, Germany and Russia and links together their fates and fortunes as they move through the devastation and drama of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the battle for female suffrage.

Welsh pit lad Billy Williams, only son of a local union boss, has never let death and adversity get in the way of his trust in God while best friend Tommy Griffiths, a disciple of Karl Marx, is convinced the capitalist system will soon destroy itself.

Events at home and abroad will put beliefs to the test and sort the men from the boys...

Meanwhile, Billy’s clever and beautiful sister Ethel, housekeeper to pit owner Earl Edward (Fitz) Fitzherbert and his arrogant Russian wife Princess Bea, has caught the eye of her master and the repercussions will shape her destiny.

Meanwhile, Fitz’s suffragette sister Maud is bored by wealthy, upper-class Englishmen and has embarked on a love affair with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London.

Throw into the mix an ambitious young American who is aide to US President Woodrow Wilson and two Russian brothers, one hard-working, dependable and serious, the other a selfish but charming crook, and the scene is set for a truly momentous story.

Research has always been the key to Follett’s success and here he moves effortlessly from the workings of a coal pit and the production of a steam locomotive to the running of a stately home, the intricacies of court protocol and the convoluted politics of Europe.

He is as much at home in the simple cottage of a Welsh miner and a frontline trench in war-torn Flanders as he is in the Oval office at the White House and a glittering ballroom in St Petersburg.

Couple such attention to detail with finely drawn characters, heart-stopping action in the hotspots of Europe and a story brimming with passion, pathos and peril, and you have all the components for another classic.

Follett shows us people from every walk of life – we witness their strengths, their weaknesses, their mendacity, their honesty, their ambition, their humanity, their battle to enslave and their will to be free.

And through the thoughts and deeds of the individual, we read universal truths and witness history as it was made.

Roll on the next two instalments of what promises to be Follett’s best work so far...

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)