By J.K. Barlow | Books | January 8, 2011 |
By J.K. Barlow | Books | January 8, 2011 |
The Pillars of the Earth was first published in 1989 and, according to the introduction, was so much appreciated by its readers that it became a bestseller solely through word of mouth. I was persuaded to read it because the plot revolves around the building of a cathedral which, though fictional, is partly based on the cathedral of Winchester, UK, the city where I am currently employed. The book is also effusively described on the cover as “beloved” of many people, and who wouldn’t find that appealing?
Like most massive bestsellers, POE is not a triumph of prose. Follett never moved me with his words; more often than not he left me wincing at his descriptions of lovemaking, power lust, piety and evil. If ever an original word dropped from the pen of Ken Follett, it sure as heck didn’t fall into this book. True, this seems to be an affliction of many historical novels. It’s as though the sheer effort of research has sapped these writers of the ability to make anything beautiful out of what they’ve found — either that, or they feel they shouldn’t have to, having already worked so hard. Then again, Wolf Hall was a masterpiece (Hey Cannonballers: somebody review that, STAT). So Follett has no excuse, except maybe that he’s just a bad writer.
And yet POE is touted as a beloved favourite. Why is this so? If not a triumph of prose, is it at least one of storytelling? Yes, to an extent. At the outset I was charmed by the characters and their predicaments, intrigued by the family sagas, and appalled by the brutality in which they live. But at 1060 pages, things get a little repetitive. The characters are predictable archetypes. The heroes are all smart, strong, self-sufficient and capable. They are often called upon to defy the odds and do so with aplomb. If not strikingly beautiful, they are at least pleasant-looking. The antagonists, by contrast, come in two types: doltish and greedy or cold and manipulative (and greedy). They are all driven by revenge, and are ugly, to a man. The most striking example of this is Regan Hamleigh; arguably the fomenter of most of the evil in this book, her face is covered in revolting boils that most people can’t bear to look at. You might argue that some characters occupy a moral grey area, but this is usually just because they have been stupid enough to ignore the good, wise advice of our heroes. Eventually these ones are always persuaded to walk the good path.
The plot doesn’t follow any noticeable arc, but consists of a series of challenges - battles, or attacks, or sneaky political manoeuvres - which are always bravely faced. While things may sometimes look bleak, the heroes always triumph. Incredibly, no one ever seems to get discouraged. The bad guys keep on doing bad, the good guys save the day - and nobody ever changes their mind. At one point the heroine says of a villain, “He was so evil, it was hard to believe.” Indeed. Even more insulting to the readers’ intelligence are the eventual fates of these villains: they are driven into abject penury, they die unshriven, and they are hanged in a state of animal debasement. Naturally, pity is taken on them by our enlightened protagonists.
Most of this book’s appeal, I suppose, comes from its historical context. The medieval era holds a fascination for a lot of people. And then, of course, there are the cathedrals. It may have been remiss of me not to mention them until now, and I realize I’m making myself out to be something of a Philistine here, but I really don’t care about architecture. I mean, I recognize its importance and all, but it just isn’t my thing, so much so that despite countless references to church architecture I never bothered to find out what a clerestory is. And I’m okay with that.
POE isn’t a bad book. If you’re an architecture buff you might really like it. It’s very long, but I read the whole thing. It’s soothing, in a way, to imagine for a while that conflicts actually play out like this. Writers like Follett know that, of course — it’s their bread and butter. But the only challenge here is fitting the damn thing in your bag. Although I haven’t seen it, I recommend the miniseries produced last year that was based on Pillars. The cast looks decent, and if, as in many TV adaptations, a few of the side plots had to be dropped, so much the better. You won’t really be missing much.
You can read more of J.K. Barlow’s work on her blog.