My thoughts on : Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
I must first admit one thing - I am not a big fan of Ken Follett, even though I have read most of his famous works. Back in college, I had a few friends who used to dote over him and introduced me to World Without End and after which I read The Pillars of the Earth. I really liked both books. Even though each one was the size of a big pillow, I found myself finishing them in no time. Real page-turners indeed.
Fall of Giants, in true Ken Follett tradition, is a healthy 1100 page mammoth of a book. But I ended up reading it in less than 5 days (weekdays that too) I cannot recollect any other author who can make 1500 pages so palatable and yet pack so much quality content into it.
Fall of Giants is the first book of the so called 'Century Trilogy'. the second tome titled Winter of the World has just been released. In the three books, Ken Follett is attempting to capture the highlights of the 20th Century - undoubtedly the most tumultuous 100 years in the history of mankind.
Fall of Giants focuses on the decade of the First World War, starting with its build up and touching upon the October Revolution of 1917 and finally the capturing of power by the Labour Party in Britain for the very first time. The underlying theme of the book is the fall of traditional power structures in major countries after the First World War and the emergence of new forces. An impressive amount of historical content is packed into this book and anyone unfamiliar with this time-frame will emerge much wiser after reading this book.
Since he is dealing with so many POVs and events spread across many countries, Ken Follett has opted for 5 families as his POV entities. These characters include the Earl Fitzerbert family of Wales, the Peshkovs of Russia, the von Helberts of Germany, the Dewars of the USA and the Williams, mining family from Wales. A notably absent point of view would be that of the French who were so central to the First World War. Within these four families, Follett has managed to present just about every major perspective of that time frame. Through the characters of Maud Fitzerbert and Ethel Williams he has portrayed the budding feminine movement of the UK finally coming to the center-stage. Earl Fitzerbert presents the classic English aristocracy, always conscious about British pride and Gentlemanly behaviors. The von Helberts represent the starkly different POVs from within Germany. The military older generation, still beaming with pride over the subjugation of France in the war for Alsace and Lorraine fifty years back and the younger generations who yearn for growth and prosperity. Sadly, the older generation's thought process wins in the end as we all know. The Peshkovs represent two sides to the Russian story. While the elder brother Grigory is central to the Bolshevik capture of power in 1917 and presents a grim picture of the failures of the Tsar regime, the younger brother Lev runs away to England and eventually to the USA. A classic player and a charming con man, Lev was initially my favorite character in the book, but sadly Ken Follett failed to build this character into something more than his face value. A pity indeed. The Dewars represent the Old Money of America and give a brief gist of America's involvement in the War. Lastly, the Williams represent the working class of Britain. Tired of the overbearing aristocracy and grown inure to the failures of the Conservatives and the Liberals, Williams highlight the rise of the Labour movement in Great Britain. You could say the characters of Billy and Ethel Williams are the closest to central protagonists of the book. Despite getting a lot of coverage of their POVs, I did not connect with either character and was largely let down by them.
To summarize Ken Follett has put together an impressive array of varied characters to tell a story over such a vast canvas. But the characters who showed a lot of depth and potential for growth were not focused on and the ones who got a lot of focus did not reveal any new side to the story. Coming of age is a great story on most occasions, but does not work out on this one.
One major drawback of this book is that none of the major characters undergo any major character-changes over the course of the First World War. A strong, independent, rich English woman becomes a strong, independent, poor German wife. A womanizer, charming con-man remains a womanizer and charming con-man.
One would expect that an event of the magnitude of the First World War would leave some lasting scars on some of the characters and maybe even cause a twist in the story line. Sadly, there was nothing like that. After reading the first 100 pages, if you made a gist about each major character, it will mostly look the same even after reading the remaining 1000 pages. That made the book seem a little weary towards the end.
While i have been focusing a lot on the drawbacks, that does not mean that it was a bad book. Far from it, I really enjoyed reading this book. And within the 1000 odd pages were some really fascinating lines which are a testament to the ability of Follett to paint pictures with words.
One particular segment that I enjoyed a lot was this quote about Petrograd a few weeks before the Russian Revolution. It was a tense time when the masses were slowly stirring from their centuries-long slumber, but they were not arising fast enough for the Bolsheviks!
"Petrograd was like a pan of water on the fire, Grigori thought: there were wisps of steam and a few bubbles of violence, and the surface shimmered with intense heat, but the water seemed to hesitate, and the proverbial watched pot did not boil."
It takes an author of great ability to write like that.
To summarize, Fall of Giants is an impressive historical novel that packs a lot of information into a neat end product. While it is by no means a definitive account of this period, Ken Follett has done a ton of home work into this book and that clearly shows. Ken Follett fans will undoubtedly love this book as it has all his standard touches.
If you are looking to start reading a Trilogy that is voluminous but really easy on your attention span, then you should definitely check this one out.