Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Book review: Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

Since my last novel, I've taken way longer than I had anticipated to finish the next. I had so many things going on the past few weeks that I was unable to find the time to read at a stretch. I did it in short stabs stealing whatever spare time I could.  

After I devoured six books by Greg Iles back-to-back, the next author I set my sights on was Ken Follett. The Welsh author of thrillers and historical novels has sold more than 160 million copies of his works. Many of his books have achieved high ranking on best seller lists. I'll admit that I had never read any of his books before. But that has since changed (obviously) and I now have an entire collection on my Kindle that awaits!

Eye of the Needle was Follett's first successful, best-selling effort as a novelist, and it earned him the 1979 Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America


Contains spoilers

The premise of the novel is a fictionalized account of events preceding the most important military operation of World War II: the Battle of Normandy. As most history buffs are aware, the Western Allies of World War II launched the largest amphibious invasion in history when they assaulted Normandy, located on the northern coast of France, on 6 June 1944. In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allied forces conducted a huge near-impossible deception operation, aimed at misleading the Germans with respect to the date and place of the invasion. The objective of 'Operation Fortitude' was to trick the enemy into preparing for an invasion via the Pas de Calais so that on D-Day, the Normandy assault would have the advantage of surprise. 

A big part of this covert operation were the spies that operated on both sides, Germany and Britain at the time. Under the watchful eye of Winston Churchill, The British were able to turn several German spies into double agents who would then feed falsified information to Hitler's camp. From this point in history onward, Eye of the Needle enters the realm of fiction. A single German spy working for the Nazi's known only as Die Nadel or 'The Needle' has the capacity to foil the entire ruse. Being the Führer's number one agent, Die Nadel has in his possession, photographic evidence to prove the presence of a massive dummy camp near Calais and he is on the move to deliver the damning information personally. The British intelligence MI5 who have recruited a network of 'spy catchers' consisting of soldiers, historians, scholars, barristers and the likes must come together to decipher cryptic codes, monitor suspicious activity and undertake spy catching missions in the interest of national security. Percival Godliman, a widowed history professor and Frederick Bloggs, a young inspector from Scotland Yard work around the clock in the manhunt for the evasive Die Nadel before it is too late. 

In a dramatic and unexpected twist to the plot, a young English woman's fate becomes entwined in the spy drama and she unwittingly finds herself a major determinant of the outcome of the war. Lucy, is a wife of an ex-trainee RAF pilot and mother of a three year old child, living in desolation on Storm island, off the east coast of Scotland. Her angst stemming from a loveless marriage to her paraplegic husband keeps her in an unceasingly woeful state of mind. One day, her life as she has known it is turned upside down. She has 48 hours to find the courage she has never known to be safeguard not only her child but also her country.

The outcome of the Battle of Normandy is written in history. But what is the fate of Die Nadel? What happens to Lucy and her family?

Read the book to find out!

My thoughts...

I have read umpteen historical novels set during World War II. War provides great material for story-telling probably because there is so much of emotion involved. Stories that are based on real people and real events in unimaginably trying times makes for absorbing and enriching reading especially considering how different a time we are living in. That being said, this is one of the few times that I am reading a story set in the pre-war period.

It is hard to believe that Ken Follett was only 27 when he wrote this book. His writing style is simple, methodical, succinct and it showcases his imagination and vision. The way the author seamlessly blends true historical events with electrifying fiction is remarkable. The sudden switch between scenes and landscapes locks in the suspense and leaves the reader wondering what is in store for each character. 

The strength of the book lies in its story. It is engaging, chilling and inspiring. I would say the first half of the book is a bit slow but towards the middle it picks up steam and is gripping right until the very end. It isn't without its flaws of course. A few of the fictionalized aspects of the novel may seem formulaic and one or two maybe even far-fetched but I'd say those may be disregarded.

The fact that the story is based on actual events that took place in history makes the novel insightful. As a reader, we get an idea of the espionage techniques employed during the turbulent pre-war time. Spy thrillers have that fascinating air of mystery and drama. To be able to get into the head of a spy and understand the way things work in their world and how they relate to people around them makes for compelling reading. 

The characters are well-defined and I love how the author has depicted the strong female character. The 70's woman was (mostly) raised to be a submissive wife and subsequently, a devoted mother. It was a time where gender inequality was the norm. Where women were expected to be weak and vulnerable. The general perception of a woman was based on her sexuality. But in this novel, to see a female character who does not hesitate to express her feelings or desires and has depth to her personality is refreshing. Lucy, is one of the best characters in the novel. As a reader, you feel empathetic towards her life's circumstances even when she recklessly crosses the line into amoral territory. Her naivety, courage and resourcefulness renders her character endearingly heroic. It reinforces the notion that heroes can emerge from the most unlikeliest of places and circumstances. The main male characters are also well drawn. For the most part, Die Nadel comes across as a reticent cold-blooded assassin, ready to whip out his deadly stiletto at any given moment in the interest of self-preservation or at the behest of his country. But his personality reveals more layers as he does express human emotions detrimental to the nature of this work that somewhat softens his character. Godliman is sharp and dedicated with a foresight that makes him a hero in his own right. Although a little more character development would have been welcome. Bloggs is likable and his personal history particularly strikes a chord with the reader. The emotionally evocative interactions between the main characters adds depth to the narrative. 

This work of historical fiction is not very long so if you have never read any of Follett's books, this would be a good starting point. The tale of espionage is replete with love, lust, anger, guilt, resentment, patriotism, suspense, thrills and drama. 

The Eye of the Needle is memorable and eclipses most contemporary thrillers! 

My rating for this book is

Have you read this novel? What did you think of it? Leave a comment to let me know!


1 comment:

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something
    which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me.
    I'm looking forward for your next post, I'll try to get the hang
    of it!


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