Book Review: Historical Fiction at its Best

Prolific writers need to be prolific readers (Stephen King agrees with me), and so this year I’ve vowed to up my reading. Even though I’m already accused of reading way too much.

To measure just how much it is that I read, I also vowed to write reviews of the books that I’ve finished, so as to be able to look back and see at a glance what I’ve covered over the course of a year. And it’s a double whammy, because it keeps me writing and I can count those reviews towards the 1000 words a day.

book review
My favorite reading spot.

I just finished Edge of Eternity, book number three in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. If I counted pages instead of just books, I’d already have finished my annual reading allotment, that’s how fat every one of those three books is. And yet, not for one moment did I feel like I had to slug through. On the contrary, I’m now feeling depressed. Those characters and their ancestors – the Peshkov families in Russia and the United States, Dave and Evie Williams in the UK, the Franck family separated by what I’d consider the centerpiece of this book, the Berlin Wall, George Jakes and Maria Summer as participants in the American civil rights struggle, and not least a number of historical figures like Bobby Kennedy – have been with me for over a thousand pages in just this installment. I accompanied them every step of the way, from the events leading up to World War I (book one: Fall of Giants) to World War II (book two: Winter of the World) and throughout the Cold War all the way up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’ve come to love them dearly.

Ken Follett, in his late career, has become a master storyteller of historical fiction. I don’t much care for some of his earlier works, like Eye of the Needle, which, if I remember correctly, I found naively plotted. But ever since Pillars of the Earth, and even more so with this trilogy, his masterpiece I would say, he has come into his own rivaling other writers of epic historical fiction, like James Michener or Edward Rutherfurd. In fact, I find him a lot more readable, more engaging on the fiction part, (and, I admit it, rather racy), while still doing great homework in the history department. Granted, his characters are a bit idealistic, but that doesn’t make them one-dimensional or wooden. In this last part of the trilogy, we get to witness the rise of the Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, Prague Spring, the coming of age of Rock ‘n Roll, the overthrow of Khrushchev, the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr, the Freedom Riders, the Solidarity movement in Poland, Nixon’s resignation – all woven together through the hopes and dreams and disappointments of the various characters on different continents, who in several instances end up interacting with each other.

It’s this last detail that may give some readers a gripe about Follett’s storytelling: it seems improbable to have all these protagonists repeatedly running into each other the world over. But while you may decry it for being far-fetched, it also helps the narrative be much more compelling, rather than, say, introducing new people at every turn whom we won’t care for as much as we do for those we already know. It’s precisely on the strength of those characters that we can forgive the crutch of improbable providence when it is used.

One thing I found not as easily forgiven was Follett’s habit of reminding us periodically of events earlier in the book, via the reflections of his main characters, sort of the way J.K. Rowling craftily weaves events from earlier books into the later Harry Potter installments without making it sound like a bunch of Cliff Notes at the beginning of each book. But while this makes sense when an author jumps from one book to the other, it makes no sense whatsoever within one and the same book, even if it is over 1000 pages long. What does Ken Follett think, that I am so forgetful as to not remember that a typewriter was thrown into the river at some juncture? Or that a female character had had an affair with President Kennedy? Maybe he doesn’t trust his own ability to propel the reader along swiftly and thinks periodic reminders are needed, but I found this habit of his (not, to my recollection, present in the first two books) annoying enough as to subtract one star out of five.

If you check out the reviews on Amazon, you’ll find that some have blasted Edge of Eternity for its “revisionist liberal agenda” but I can’t say I was bothered by it. Perhaps I’m more forgiving because I’m a liberal at heart. Or perhaps the reason it grates on some people is that Ronald Reagan is portrayed very badly, in the brief mention he gets, which must amount to sacrilege for many Republicans. I wouldn’t say the storyline is as much revisionist as it is focused on certain key events, perhaps to the detriment of others. The Civil Rights struggle gets a huge amount of attention, whereas all of Vietnam is covered in one minor side story. One should remember, however, that the entire trilogy centers on Europe’s two world wars and their aftermath. In that context, the emphasis on the chosen events makes sense to me.

Also, having lived through it myself, I must say that the chapters about the Berlin wall and the anguish and fear it created for Germans of that generation is spot on. It reads as if Follett was there to experience it for himself, a remarkable feat for someone without a German background. I’ve found it extremely hard to explain to non-Germans how scary that wall was. What a chill you felt in your bones standing on the Western side of the Brandenburg Gate, staring over at the border guards who stared back at you and took the occasional picture for their Stasi files, should you make the smallest provocative move, like waving your fist. How you were ready to fall to your knees and kiss the hallowed western ground on the Ku-Damm after spending a day in dreadful East Germany. How you had tears of joy streaming down your cheeks on the night of November 9th, 1989 when you watched in disbelief how people were dancing on top of that cursed wall. All of this was made so vivid to me in this book as if I lived through it all over again.

Because I can attest first-hand to the truth of the German narrative, I don’t see any reason to doubt the rest. In fact, I find it refreshing that we get to view big chunks of the Cold War from behind the Iron Curtain, with a glimpse into the thought processes inside the Politburo, which of course wasn’t just staffed with villains but also reform-minded men and women. Women, in particular, had a more equal standing in Soviet society in many ways than in the Western world, and this is touched on in this book, among much else.

I also enjoyed the historical detail, down to what was actually spoken in some White House meetings, and never found any of it tedious to read through. If you’re a politics wonk and have enjoyed books such as Game Change, you will enjoy the closeup look at some of these historic decision-making processes, and the realization that partisan battles were just as contentious then as they are today.

All in all, I loved the book, I loved the entire trilogy, and I feel like it helped me fill in a number of holes in my understanding of 20th century history.

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