Book Review: Pillars of the Earth

A riveting historical thriller

I feel hollow but at the same time fresh and attentive, heightened senses. I’m writing this, in the throes of a book hangover, minutes after finishing the huge Ken Follett bestselling historical thriller Pillars of the Earth.

I have a theory about novels, that the main characteristic of an effective novel is immersion. Reading a good novel is like falling down a rabbit hole and travelling in a dream world. At the end of the journey you should really feel you have gone somewhere and that your experiences during the journey have altered you.

Reading this huge novel which swallowed me into its world totally to the point of blocking everything else out, I wondered if size is what guarantees immersion. But then I remembered that the last time I had this devastating feeling after finishing a book was last year when I read Banana Yoshimoto’s short novel N.P. It was just over a hundred pages and nothing much happened in the story but it gave me a helluva book hangover, easily one of the most affecting book experiences I have ever had. I also remember the total devastation and emptiness and feeling of absolute languor that I experienced back in 2014 when I read Gertrude’s Stein long short story Melanctha (and quite fortunately, I recently chanced upon the book that contains that story while roaming the streets of Nairobi).

So it’s not about size. It’s about the style, the plot, the prose, and so forth. In the case of Melanctha, it was Gertrude Stein’s incredible prose style. In the case of N.P., it was a combination of the beautiful prose style and the magical plot. In the case of Pillars of the Earth, it’s the plot. The prose style isn’t magnificent, but the plot, my God, the plot is a beauty.

A story set in the twelfth century, less than a century after the Norman Conquest of England (google it, fascinating history). It begins with a hanging of an innocent man, accused by a knight, a monk, and a priest, and the curse that was flung at the three by the girl who loved the man they hanged. Then we follow over the years the effects of the curse. But it’s more complex than that. It follows the lives of multiple, intertwined characters over the years. We watch them grow from youth and childhood or even birth to middle age or old age or death (depending on the character). It’s absolutely riveting. And towards the end, the book started to give me the feeling I felt when I watched Martin Scorsese’s recent movie The Irishman — a very, very long story that has spanned very many years and you feel as if you have grown old with the characters in the process of reading/watching it.

I wonder if Ken Follet wrote this novel simply because he wanted to write about cathedrals. The novel is all about medieval cathedrals and how to build them. Three of the major characters in the novel are master builders. We learn all about how cathedrals are built and what makes them beautiful, what makes them grand, what makes them solid, and we even get to observe innovation in the field of cathedral building happening in the course of the story. The book is weighty with research, not just on cathedrals but on medieval England. The story is set in a very real historical era, and features many historical characters: kings, lords, a queen, and a bishop (who becomes a saint, both in history and in the course of the novel).

I once attended a writers’ workshop on how to write a historical novel. One Italian author told us that the way to write a historical novel is to tell a little story next to the big historical story. Basically, take a true historical event/story, and then intertwine it with your own made up story featuring characters who lived during that time. That’s exactly what Ken Follet has done in this novel. His is the story of characters living in the towns of Kingsbridge and Shiring during the politically hazardous years following the death of King Henry the First up to the time of King Henry the Second (in between is the reign of King Stephen the usurper who is at war during his entire reign with Henry II’s mother Maud/Matilda and then later with Henry). The great value of a historical novel is the education it gives you about a particular time period. The beauty, unlike a historical nonfiction, is that it actually makes you live in the era, makes you feel what it must have felt to live during that time. For the last few days I have spent over fifty years in twelfth century England.

When I was reading it, I really wanted to finish it so that I can get on with my life. Now that I have, I feel empty, hollow. Thanks Chebet and Mistari Za Wahenga for recommending it so many times until I relented (of books which turn their readers into evangelists).

Writer. Epiphany addict.