Monday, June 24, 2019

Book review: the Century trilogy by Ken Follett

This is the most time-consuming and tricky book review I have ever written! Reviewing three novels (each around 800-1000+ pages long) is not a simple task as you can imagine. I can't even wrap my head around the hours of extensive research, painstaking effort and revisions the author Ken Follett took to complete them! But this is one review I just had to do it because these three books come together to form a literary masterpiece that I believe everyone should read.

Reading the Century trilogy is akin to taking a history lesson - only far more interesting than anything that comes out of a classroom! The author takes the reader on a vivid journey back in time to the events preceding World War I. Through the lives of five fictional families, he recounts the most important historical events of the twentieth century namely,
1. World War I that followed after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary with Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Russia, France, and Great Britain on the other
2. World War II that arose from the political takeover of Germany by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, Italian Fascism, and Japanese militarism. The principal belligerents were the Axis powers - Germany, Italy, and Japan against the Allies - France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union and
3. Cold War, the open yet restricted rivalry that developed after World War II between the communist states and capitalist states.


The novels narrate the story of five inextricably linked families - American, German, Russian, English and Welsh - as three generations navigate through almost 80 years that sees wars, hardship, suffering,  tyranny, uprising, political unrest and revolutions. The lives of the characters illuminate the violent and world-changing vacillations of the 20th century. The author has inserted real historical figures into the story, and their interaction with the fictional characters has been skillfully executed.

World War I was a significant turning point in the political, cultural, economic, and social climate of the world. The war and its immediate aftermath sparked numerous revolutions and uprisings. Despite the creation of League of Nations, a body that was intended to prevent future wars, the Second World War followed just over twenty years later. World War II included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war. The high-octane storytelling moves the characters through these series of events offering unique perspectives and experiences. Additionally, the reader is given insights into anti-communist uprisings, such as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring in 1968, and the botched US Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961.

Aside from the obvious history and politics, the rich story Ken Follett weaves sheds light on women's suffrage, the nuclear arms race, condition of soldiers in the trenches, American civil rights, interracial relationships, conscription, opposition to the Vietnam war, activism for freedom of speech, alternative media, sexual revolution, the changing music scene, rise of the hippie and alternative lifestyles and even experimentation with drugs.


Warning: you are entering spoiler territory!

The Williams family is based in London. With humble origins tracing back to the coal mines  of Aberowen (a fictional town in Wales), the family has at its core, an independent woman who through sheer grit and determination, rises from the ranks of housemaid to Baroness. An activist at heart, Ethel instils the same principles in her son Lloyd. She partakes in the war efforts and eventually gains a firm strong hold in politics as Member of Parliament. After leading anti-Fascist demonstrations in London, Lloyd fights for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and later helps downed airmen escape German-occupied France during World War II. After the war, he becomes a Labour Party MP. The liberal Williams family lobby towards political reform in Britain and even fight for controversial gay rights.

The von Ulrich family is based in Germany. Their story begins following an English-German intercultural union between Lady Maud Fitzherbert and nobleman Walter von Ulrich during World War I. After a brief period of harmony, the family is plunged into turmoil with fascism rearing its ugly head in Nazi Germany. Being Social Democrats goes against the family's interests and tragedy strikes, yet Maud and her idealistic daughter Carla continue to endanger their lives by conspiring with freedom fighters to overthrow the Nazi regime. After the Red Army liberates Germany, Carla suffers atrocities at their hands. As a consequence of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, Germany is divided between the two global blocs in the East and West. The formidable Berlin Wall physically and ideologically divided the city of Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Carla's adopted daughter Rebecca and bastard son Walli encounter the perils of crossing the wall to flee from communist East Berlin to the capitalist West. The mass exodus of emigrants who were mostly young and talented predictable led to a "brain drain" and eventually crippled the economy of East Berlin. Through musician Walli, the music scene, the hippie culture and sexual liberation of that era are chronicled. 

The Peshkov family storyline is divided into two. The tale of two orphaned brothers begins in the Soviet Union amidst the tyrannical regime of the tsars. This period marks the beginning of conflict between Austria and  Serbia which then leads to World War I. Older brother Grigori remains in the Soviet Union, his faith firmly entrenched in communism and the betterment of the country. Grigori's descendents, Volodya and Volodya's sister's twins Dimitri and Tanya then take over the Soviet chapter of the storyline. Their collective hope is to reform communism. They are frustrated with the unchallengeable authority of the Party, brutally enforced by the KGB. Through their stories, the changes faces of the Kremlin starting from Lenin and followed by Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev to Gorbachev and how eventually, the failure of communism and collapse of the Soviet eventuates. On the other hand, younger brother Lev lands in the United States to pursue a better life for himself. The children of Lev, a legitimate daughter Daisy who initially is nothing more than a social climber gradually evolves into a mature, responsible and strong woman finds her fate entwined with the Williams family. Lev's Harvard educated bastard son Greg and grandson George find themselves in Washington D.C at the helm of the Kennedy administration. Through their stories, one of the most important periods in American history including the civil rights movement and nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union over Cuba (which almost led to a World War III) are highlighted. 

The Dewar family is based in the United States. Their story begins with Gus Dewar in Woodrow Wilson's White House. An aristocratic family of politicians, they have high connections in the United States government and as a result, significant roles to play in the inevitable World War. Through the eyes of the Dewar family the Japanese attack on Pearl harbour is brought to life with a dramatic intensity. Gus's older son Woody serves in the U.S. Army against the Germans, leading an paratroop platoon on D-Day.

The Rothman/Murray family has German and English origins. When a Jewish doctor in Nazi Germany is persecuted, his daughter Eva Rothman flees to America. She subsequently marries English military officer Jimmy Murray. The children of the Murray family are involved in media current affairs in the United States and Europe. The reader also gets a perspective on the Vietnam war through Eva's son Jasper Murray.

My thoughts...

In an astounding work of literature, Ken Follett condenses the historically significant events from years beginning from 1911 to 1989 taking the reader on an emotional, enlightening and unforgettable journey back in time. 

Among the different subjects that the books tackled, the Russian Revolution was of least interest to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of Fall of Giants which focussed on the main characters as they steer through the struggle for women’s suffrage, increasingly bitter relations between the working class and an entrenched aristocracy and of course the catastrophic World War I but in the second half, the rise of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union became a little tedious.

I found Winter of the World interesting from the first page to the last. The novel tackles the rise of Nazism, the Francoist dictatorship in Spain, the Battle of Moscow, the London Blitz, the invasion of Normandy, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the development of the nuclear bomb and the fall of Berlin among others.

Among the three books, my favourite is definitely Edge of Eternity which spans the tumultuous era from 1961 to 1989. I found the novel to be a big juicy page-turner, the most fast-paced of the lot and ties up all the loose ends nicely. Through the third generation of characters, the author brings the counterculture movement of the 60's to life. There are so many aspects of this novel that I liked -  a quick recap on Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, the scandalous personal life of John F Kennedy, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, watergate scandal, downfall of communism and the unification of Germany.

On the subject of characters, I obviously have my share of favourite and not-so-favourite characters. I found the characters of Ethel Williams, Lloyd Williams, Daisy Peshkov, Carla von Ulrich, Volodya  Peshkov and George Jakes inspiring and interesting. I felt the storyline of the character of Rebecca Hoffman was a tad disappointing. She had such a promising start to her story but didn't manage to leave as much of an impression on me as I would have expected. My least favourite characters were those of Earl Fitzherbert, Lev Peshkov, Beep Dewar, Verena Marquand, Cameron Dewar and Jasper Murray. 

The premise of the Century trilogy is brilliant in its conception and stellar in its delivery. To cover so many years with considerable depth is a magnificent feat. The novels also offers a multi-dimensional perspective of the events surrounding the war forming a vivid kaleidoscope of politics and society. The author's ability to efficiently juggle multiple narratives coherently is remarkable. He uses an omniscient third-person narrator that unites the different points of views of the characters and keeps the reader up to speed. Even though the novels have a dizzying array of characters, even someone with a foggy memory such as myself, didn't have to turn to the Cast of Characters (helpfully provided at the start of each novel). And as I always say after reading a Ken Follett novel, I love that he writes such strong and inspiring women characters. The fluid story, richness of the characters and attention to detail makes this trilogy an absorbing read.

The novels aren't without their flaws though - many circumstances and instances seem contrived, some of the historical details appear exaggerated, the interpersonal relationships could have been better probed, the fates of some seemingly important characters never explained (whatever happened to Erik von Ulrich??) and is it just me or do several sentences often get repeated? Also, I'm not sure if it was intentional on the part of the author but although chilling, he falls short of expressing the true horrors of war times. This is more an observation and less of a complaint because rather than dwelling on blood curdling details, the novels take a step back and probes the reasons why people did what they did, and how the world allowed whatever happened in the past to happen.  

After I was done with all the three books, I couldn't help think about the difference between the youth back then and the youth today. An unfair comparison by all accounts, but one can't help but wonder. When you read about a teenager risking her life by transmitting vital battle plans to overthrow an oppressive regime or a young woman tirelessly working as a ambulance driver rescuing people during the Blitz or a young man forced to leave his entire family behind and cross the wall of death to freedom, it brings about such a stark contrast to what most young people have to face in their daily lives today. Back in those times, life was filled with hardships and survival was not taken for granted.  Not to mention, people were a lot more patriotic and passionate in their beliefs. We are now living in a world that loves to look at life through a filter of perfection. I dare say the millennial generation is superficial when it comes to a lot of things. For a lot of young people living in the developed world in this digital age and time, frustration can stem from not having free wifi, long lines at Starbucks or not getting enough likes on social media! It is astounding how times have changed. It is upsetting to know that we are a privileged generation, most of whom have no clue how much our predecessors have suffered to lay down the foundation for the kind of life we lead and the choices we are able to make today. For this reason at least, this work of literature merits a read. 

On that note, I'll sign off by saying that this trilogy is an ambitious multigenerational, continent-spanning saga of gripping fiction intertwined with eye-opening historical detail that will transport the lucky reader to another time and place.

Oh, and it will definitely make you feel a wee bit smarter 😆

Strongly recommended!

My rating for this trilogy is,


No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think of this post? You can leave a message to let me know. Thanks!

Please note that I reserve the right to delete any comments that I deem inappropriate, offensive, spam or self-advertising. I appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...