Thirty-one years ago, I was stoked when I walked into my local bookshop on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights because there on the “recommended” table was a new book, “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, my favorite author of spy novels. When I first opened the book I was let down as I found myself in a mediaeval market, but my admiration for Follett’s storytelling skills kept me going and I experienced one of the finest novels I’ve ever read.
So, it was with great anticipation that I downloaded his new prequel to that book (and his Kingsbridge series) called “The Evening and the Morning.” But as I closed the book the other night, I was a bit at sixes and sevens as to whether I liked it or not.
As always, Follett is a magnificent storyteller and writer. His dialogues are believable as are the twists and turns of his many intertwined plots, and his character development is sublime. While he admits in his brief epilogue that there is little known of the real history of the times (997-1007AD) and he had to make much of it up, his rendition seems plausible.
The key characteristic of his history that is real is the dominant role of the Roman Catholic Church in determining the governance and hierarchy of society in both Norman France England. It is also quite plausible that, like all powerful people, members of the Church hierarchy do much scheming and manipulating of the “lesser” people they supposedly serve.
Those people include the dominant players protagonists Lady Ragna, Edgar the Builder, and Prior Aldred who play against a powerful, Church-empowered family led by Bishop Wynstan, his brother Wilgred and their mother Gytha.
What seems more than a bit exaggerated is the level of cruelty and violence of church and other powerful players against other people, especially against women, even royal women. I don’t doubt there was some of that in those times, but the levels in the book are extreme and I’d think if a movie were to be made of “The Evening and the Morning,” it would have to be X-rated or possibly limited to distribution on pornography sites.
I thought that one weakness of the book was the last 150 pages which seemed to rush towards a fairy tale conclusion which in a longer, more carefully written version would have included a better grasp of the politics that would have had to be involved. Another is that the violence will push some readers away – my wife couldn’t take it and gave up about halfway through.
Still, I think it’s a great example of Follet’s ability to write a 900 page book that will keep the reader’s interest right up to the end. So now, I’m considering re-reading “Pillars of the Earth” after 31 years!