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My Pillars of the Earth review
on 11 September 2011
I started reading this as a favour to the Old man. It's his favourite book of all time and although it's taken a while, he finally wore me down. I think I was ill at the time and my resolve was weakened. `Bloody hell, go on then. It'd better be good'
I've read a few Follett books in the past, `The Eye of the Needle' and the `The Key to Rebecca' and thoroughly enjoyed them. But I was a bit younger then and easily seduced by spies, motorbike chases and assassins having threesomes. (Key to Rebecca that last one, In case you're interested)
The Pillars of the Earth is a different beast, a sprawling historical epic, fastidious attention to detail and a time span that takes in a generation. We follow the building of a Cathedral from the kernel of an idea to its completion (not a spoiler surely) Follett must have been aware he needed to perform a delicate balancing act between his love of the subject matter and delivering an entertaining read and I'm pleased to report that he doesn't get too bogged down in the technical details while still giving the Cathedral geeks enough to chew on.
When reviewing books like `Pillars of the Earth', more national institution that novel, I don't think it's really enough to say `it's good because'. We know it must be alright, being one of the most successful books of all time should be the first clue to that. What I'd want to know if I was reading a review is `is it for me'. In this aspect the book, while daunting in length and obscure in subject matter, is remarkably inclusive. I think this is largely down to the style of the writing. I doubt Follett is capable of changing gears too drastically and this has more in common with his thrillers than any stuffy historical epic. There's sex and death and pantomime villains. Ambition, lust and greed. Some characters feel very one dimensional but this can add to the fun, Follett serving up a roster of bad guys that you love to hate and good guys who you can't help rooting for. The story cracks along at a pace as well, fresh intrigue or a big set piece always round the corner. Conversely it's this soapy, thriller style which stops the book short of true greatness. The scope and scale together with the excellent pacing and exacting historical detail make this a formidable achievement but Follett never attempts to reach past this. He isn't looking to reveal great human truths or aiming to provide a commentary on our times with an examination of the past. I wouldn't mind betting that for 90% of readers out there, this will be just the ticket.