The Bridge Builder
WORLD WITHOUT END
By Ken Follett
Dutton. 1,014 pp. $35
The millions of readers who enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth (1989) will certainly enjoy its sequel, World Without End. While it would be grossly unfair to say that it's the same book with different characters, the similarities of structure give a definite feeling of deja vu. Set in the 14th century, 200 years after Pillars, the story again takes place in Kingsbridge, England, and deals with descendants of the original characters. While the plague has replaced civil war as a vector of random destruction, the pattern is similar: a tightly constructed, well-executed plot woven through a painstakingly detailed tapestry of late medieval Europe, using architectural details to anchor the story like a set of flying buttresses.
Things have changed in 200 years. Laborers no longer wander the countryside with their families, alternately working and starving. Now peasants are tied as serfs to the land, and, if life is hard, there is a measure of stability. The religious establishment has prospered, with large abbeys competing with the nobility for land and power. And the king of England is still fighting, this time in France.
As in Pillars, we meet the story's four protagonists as children. Merthin is the brilliantly inventive but physically slight elder son of an impoverished knight; Ralph is his athletic, violent younger brother. Caris, pretty daughter of the town's alderman, befriends not only Merthin but also Gwenda, a peasant girl whose homely face hides a character of steel. Playing illicitly in the forest, the four children see a knight pursued and attacked by armed men, and by good fortune they save his life. Alone with Merthin, the knight confides a secret whose implications ripple throughout the book.
Like Pillars, World Without End employs an ongoing architectural metaphor. This time it's the town's bridge, which collapses early on, killing half the residents and providing a focus for Merthin's struggle to be accepted as a builder, in spite of his incomplete apprenticeship. The overall theme -- which is repeated with varying degrees of explicitness every 30 or 40 pages, in case you missed it -- is the value of change, innovation and open-mindedness, as opposed to a stubborn adherence to outmoded beliefs and stodgy tradition. It's 400 years yet till the Enlightenment, but the seeds of rationalism are being planted, changing attitudes bridging, if you will, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance.
The novel's greatest strength lies in its well-researched, beautifully detailed portrait of the late Middle Ages. Society at every level is here, mingling in an altogether convincing way. Follett shows the workings of politicians in all their corrupt glory, in both religious and temporal spheres.
Of course, the best research in the world does not a story make, but Follett also comes through with a terrifically compelling plot. The story centers on a romance: Merthin loves Caris. Caris loves Merthin but hesitates to marry him, feeling that there must be more to life than becoming the slave of a husband and children. She doesn't hesitate to have sex with him, though, which causes the complications one would expect, and some one wouldn't. Gwenda's dogged pursuit of the dumb-but-noble peasant Wulfric forms a sympathetic counterpoint, and the dual love stories are constantly thwarted by the machinations of two evil monks, a nasty bailiff and the ignorance and violence of the age, once again (as in Pillars) personified by a brutish knight -- this time, Merthin's younger brother, Ralph. And the Black Death pops up now and then, just to keep anyone from getting too comfortable.
The plot moves at head-spinning speed -- the plague's arrival in Florence, Merthin's infection and survival, an important death, sexual advances from his patron's Asiatic concubine and Merthin's decision to return to England are all disposed of in fewer than four pages -- but everything is always clear and put together with the precision of a Swiss watch.
Follett has only four character types: Good, Bad, Feckless Bystander and deus ex machina, each clearly identifiable from the moment of appearance. Conveniently equipped with simple characteristics to assist recognition (halo of red hair, broken nose, sweet smile), the characters for the most part are no more than pawns on a chessboard of black-and-white conflicts. The main characters -- particularly Gwenda, whose tough practicality is both inspiring and endearing -- do achieve a sense of real humanity occasionally, but the ups and downs of their lives are so well engineered that their lack of dimension isn't a major problem. This book isn't intended to be a nuanced exploration of character or relationship; it's a morality play.
Despite Follett's obvious mastery of medieval attitudes, the book oddly lacks any sense of spirituality. With the exception of one very minor character -- a saintly monk who ends up duped, sidelined and dead -- religion is either ignored or treated with complete cynicism as a weapon, a means to ambition or a threat to someone's welfare.
This is symptomatic of a slight sense of cultural dislocation that pervades the book. While medieval attitudes are skillfully displayed, there's a very modern sensibility that colors conflicts and now and then infects the dialogue. ("Negotiate!" Gwenda fiercely urges her husband at one point, while Caris later hopes that people will give up a dependence on "mumbo-jumbo medicine.")
Still, Follett's no-frills prose does its job, getting smoothly through more than 1,000 pages of outlaws, war, death, sex and politics to end with an edifice that is as well constructed and solid as Merthin's bridge. ¿
Diana Gabaldon is the author, most recently, of "Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade."