I started this trilogy, not realizing that it wasn’t yet complete. I hate it when that happens, especially when the author is old and could die before finishing! (Forgive me- I’ve been traumatized by George R.R. Martin’s upsettingly slow pace in coming out with books in Song of Ice and Fire– I now have issues with unfinished series) Oh well; it’s not like I don’t know how the 20th century plays out.
Ken Follett has never been one to shy away from the epic, and here he takes on one of the broadest topics imaginable- the history of the 20th century. He starts in the years leading up to the First World War and leaves us in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War.
He tells the story from the viewpoint of several families, located in several countries, belonging to different social classes, with their stories constantly intertwining. We have the poor Welsh miners and the lord who lives in the manor on top of their mine. There are wealthy Germans, Russians and Americans, and one Russian family split between Russia and the U.S.
Through the eyes of these people, we see events unfold as they are all pulled into the drama in various ways. Through the upper-class Brits, Germans and Americans, Follett describes the causes of World War I in a way that should probably be taught in the classroom- without some kind of illustration, the political environment that caused the war is terribly difficult to explain.
Follett pulls it off admirably, and we’re swept into the trenches of France and Belgium, as well as the Russian front. The story moves fast, and I almost found myself out of breath, trying to keep up with everyone involved. In addition to the war, we learn of the social and economic environment of Britain and Russia in particular.
There are a lot of characters, a lot of violence, a lot of sex. Halfway through the first book, I wondered why characters were having babies at such an alarming rate. You’re in the middle of a war, for heaven’s sake! But then I realized that babies born between 1914 and 18 would be adults in 1938. What great timing! Way to screw things up for your kids, people!
Follett drags us through the Bolshevik revolution, the overthrow of the Kaiser and the Treaty of Versailles in record time. Then it’s off to a a quick gallop through the 1920’s and back into more detail in the 1930’s in Book 2, with a focus on Nazi Germany. How depressing.
No literary genius, Follett’s style is effective at covering a huge amount of material quickly and compellingly. While some of the characters get short shrift, they are mostly well-drawn- I particularly like Ethel Williams, the housemaid-turned-social justice-campaigner and Grigori Peshkov, a Soviet military leader. We also get profiles of real historical figures like Woodrow Wilson and Lenin.
It’s an enjoyable way to absorb some history, although enjoyable might not be the right word. What struck me in reading these books was how awful the 20th century was for a lot of people, and how many millions suffered under various totalitarian systems for the bulk of it. The human race has come a long way in some respects, but we’re only a few short decades away from the edge of the abyss.