A first rate tale, second rate prose

The Fall of Giants, by Ken Follet

I love the ambition of this book, and it seems that Follett achieved his goal: the grand tale of the political upheavals of the early 20th Century Europe, and then the unfathomable horror that was the Great War. I really like how meticulously detailed and carefully researched the book is. He spins a fascinating plot, even if it is implausible. It weaves together British, Russian, German and American societies, and the political movements in each nation. We read with mounting anguish as war approaches, and these nations blunder into one of the worst self-inflicted disasters in history. I love the history lesson. Follet also describes the idealism of the dawn of communism, and shows how quickly idealism degenerates to despotism. More great history.

So, what’s not to like? The problem is that Follet isn’t that great a writer, his commercial success notwithstanding. The prose is easy to read—I’ll give him that. But there is little depth to his characters. They never do anything unexpected, or go through personal transformations. Even the war doesn’t change any of the characters who experience it. They return to their lives emotionally and psychologically exactly as they had been before the war. As for the love story, I felt disconnected from the characters’ emotions. Although Follett told me some of them were in love, I didn’t come close to feeling it. Romance is not Follett’s best talent—history is.

Follet is not interested in using metaphor or allegory. There is no symbolism, ambiguity, nor poetic description in his prose; it is merely a sequence of events. Its a spectacular sequence of events, but that’s as deep as it goes.

The story also wraps up too neatly for my taste. It a happily-ever-after type of tale. My favorite victorian novels, like those of Henry James, or the Russian epics, are more tragic than happy, and they are more profound and substantive as a result.

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