I've always known Ken Follett as the author of suspense thrillers -- not my favorite genre -- so when I was casting about for a comfortable read, I was dubious when a friend recommended Pillars of the Earth. But, I was looking for a good yarn to while away a wintry weekend by the fire, so I decided to give it a try.
The setting intrigued me. The novel spans several decades in 12th century England. It follows the stories of peasants, monks, masons, knights, bishops and kings whose lives intersect in one way or another as a great cathedral is built in the fictional village of Kingsbridge.
The novel draws a rich, detailed portrait of a time when life was nasty, brutish, and short. Powerful men rape, massacre and plunder with impunity; starving children are left in the forest to die by parents who cannot feed them; and grossly disfigured outlaws kill for a pair of leather boots or a bag of turnips.
Spoiler alert: Below there be plot points!
The first half centers on Tom Builder, a down-on-his-luck stone mason struggling to feed his starving family. In the forest, he meets three people who will shape his life: Ellen, the bewitching and fierce woman of the forest; Philip, the new Prior of Kingsbridge who will one day hire Tom as the Master Builder of the new cathedral; and William Hamleigh, who will become Earl, terrorizing all who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his path.
We meet Tom and his family on the road, as they tramp from town to town, seeking work and bread. This stolid but intelligent man is a compelling character, especially after he meets Ellen, a rumored witch who lives in a cave and becomes Tom's common-law wife after his first wife dies in childbirth. Tom works his way, literally, into the job of building the cathedral, impressing Father Philip with his knowledge of stone and his patient, unflappable manner.
Philip is the core of the novel, touching the lives of everyone, even Thomas Becket, whose murder he witnesses in the final chapters of the book. Philip is pious and proud, ambitious and humble. His compassion and intelligence enable him to expand Kingsbridge from a village to a thriving city, and along the way, to help other characters achieve their destinies.
When the story centers on the lives of ordinary people -- even ordinary people who go on to do extraordinary things -- it is at its best. But hovering on the periphery are tales of royal intrigue, which at times threaten to take over the book. In these episodes, I found my attention waning. I preferred the company of Tom and Ellen, struggling to hold their odd family together, or of Philip as he frets about how to fend off the machinations of the slimy Bishop Waleran. I like characters who jump off the page and become alive in my mind. When the book diverged from their stories, especially in the end, with the murder of Beckett, I found myself skipping pages -- something I very rarely do.
I was also less enthralled by the story of Aliena and Richard, a brother and sister who are forced from their castle by the evil, sadistic William Hamleigh. William glories in rape and pillage. The first such scene, when William rapes 14-year-old Aliena in front of her brother, is graphic but probably necessarily so. This scene establishes William's character and Aliena's motives for becoming so fiercely independent. But by the second, third, or fourth graphic rape scene, in which one tunic after another is ripped, revealing yet another pair of large, heaving, usually teenaged breasts, and after we're told over and over that William can't get it up without the thrill of violence, it all starts to get tiresome and exploitative.
I also found my attention waning in the latter half of the book, which focuses more on Aliena and Jack, Tom Builder's son. Their romance is interesting enough at first, but it soon becomes repetitive. So too do the pages and pages explaining medieval construction techniques.
Clearly, Follett did a great deal of research about how cathedrals were built -- including the transition from the romanesque half-circle arches to the pointed, gothic ones, and the development of flying buttresses, which Jack virtually invents. There's little I love more than visiting medieval cathedrals, standing in their cool, vast interiors, marveling at their size and grandeur, wondering how they could have been built all those centuries ago. So, while reading this book, I enjoyed learning more about how it was done. To a point. But the book would be stronger if some of the scenes describing the building process had been edited out.
In the end, Pillars of the Earth is longer than it needs to be. The novel impressively manages a long span of time, and a wide range of characters and points of view. But I wonder if its wide scope saps some of its emotional strength. When Tom died, I was surprised at how little I felt the loss. As I thought about it, I realized that we had long since left his story behind. While at first felt his emotions as he lived through travails and triumphs, later it seemed like we were being TOLD about his experiences rather than living them along with him. One truism we hold as writers is "Show Don't Tell." I wonder if the wide scope of a book like this makes that goal more difficult?
At any rate, I did get my pleasant weekend of reading in, and while these characters don't live for me as some of my favorites do (such as Gus in Lonesome Dove), I'm looking forward to the mini-series, which has apparently just finished filming and will be released later this year.
After reading the book, I did a little research. It seems that Salisbury Cathedral was one of Follett's inspirations. So, I award Pillars of the Earth 3.5 (out of 5) Salisbury Cathedrals