By William Sheehan
Sunday, September 19, 2010; BW10
FALL OF GIANTS
By Ken Follett
Dutton. 985 pp. $36
In 1989, Ken Follett, author of such phenomenally popular thrillers as "Eye of the Needle" and "The Key to Rebecca," moved in a new direction by publishing "The Pillars of the Earth," a vast, intricate account of the building of a cathedral in medieval England. "Pillars" has since become one of Follett's most widely read novels. Together with its equally vast sequel, "World Without End," it established its author as a master of the pop historical epic. Follett will surely solidify that reputation with "Fall of Giants," the first installment of a hugely ambitious work-in-progress called The Century Trilogy.
Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages and sporting an initial printing of 1 million copies, "Fall of Giants" is, in every way, a Big Book. As the series title indicates, it recounts -- or begins to recount -- the chaotic history of the 20th century. Just as Herman Wouk did in "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," Follett creates a large cast of fictional characters and deploys them across the globe, using their private experiences to illuminate the catastrophic events that marked the early years of the century.
The narrative begins in 1911, with the coronation of King George V in England, and ends in 1924, by which time the world has changed in unimaginable ways. The centerpiece of the story is the apocalyptic drama of World War I, which escalated from a local Balkan conflict to a global conflagration that claimed 16 million lives. Secondary public dramas include the protracted struggle for women's suffrage and the ongoing battle between the working class and an increasingly irrelevant aristocracy, a battle that found its apotheosis in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Set against this historical panorama are the intertwined lives of dozens of characters, all of them shaped -- and sometimes warped -- by the pressures of class, gender, politics and war. Billy and Ethel Williams are siblings who move from the hardscrabble world of the Welsh coal mines to the radical political movements of the day. Another pair of siblings, Earl and Maud Fitzherbert, are wealthy members of the landed gentry whose opposing worldviews lead them to vastly different destinies. Gus Dewar is an idealistic young American who serves both in Woodrow Wilson's White House and the trenches of France. Walter von Ulrich is an aristocratic German with emotional ties to England and conflicting ties of loyalty to the Fatherland. Grigori and Lev Peshkov are brothers left orphaned -- and embittered -- by atrocities committed in the name of the czar. One will find his way to America and a life of crime, the other to a prominent position in Lenin's Bolshevik Party.
These are the central players, and their complex relationships encompass secret marriages, upstairs-downstairs romances, ill-timed pregnancies and assorted acts of love, lust and betrayal. Unfortunately, these personal elements offer some of the most awkward, least convincing moments in the novel. Follett is neither a master of subtle characterization nor an elegant stylist. (A beautiful woman's eyes "twinkled with mischief," while a frightened soldier's "heart missed a beat.") In addition, the frequent erotic interludes are often overwrought, overheated and, at moments, silly.
Despite all this, "Fall of Giants" offers pleasures that more than compensate for its lack of literary finesse. Follett may not be Tolstoy, but he knows how to tell a compelling, well-constructed story. Once its basic elements are in place, the narrative acquires a cumulative, deceptively effortless momentum. Follett is particularly adept at balancing multiple storylines, patiently building a portrait of interconnected lives. And he consistently gets the physical details right. "Fall of Giants" gains much of its credibility through its precise description of a wide range of settings: the coal mines of Wales, the manor houses of the rich and over-privileged, the factories and hovels of pre-revolutionary Russia, and the bloody squalor of life in the trenches of the Western Front.
Perhaps the major reasons for the novel's ultimate success are Follett's comprehensive grasp of the historical record and his ability to integrate research into a colorful, engaging narrative. He's especially effective in describing the build-up to the war, when all hopes of peaceful resolution gradually faded, when arrogance, patriotic belligerence and monumental shortsightedness paved the way for the series of catastrophes that would dominate the coming decades. As the novel ends, Germany is struggling with runaway inflation and sinking beneath the demands of the Treaty of Versailles. A new political movement called National Socialism is on the rise, and a fiery young orator named Adolf Hitler is beginning to find his voice. Much has changed, and much will continue to change. Follett's recreation of those changes will occupy his next two volumes. If they are as lively and entertaining as "Fall of Giants," they should be well worth waiting for.
William Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub."