Man builds cathedral. Hardly the most exciting premise for a book huh?
So it’s probably just as well that Follett’s 1989 masterpiece is about so much more than just the combining of bricks and mortar. Spanning 29 years in the 12th century, The Pillars of the Earth follows all the major players in the building of the (sadly fictional) Kingsbridge Cathedral – from the righteous Prior Philip and his Master Builder Tom to the despicable William of Shiring who does all he can to disrupt Philip’s plans.
That’s the plot really except it’s about much more than just the building of the cathedral. Throughout the 29 years people die, they get tricked into bad marriages, they become business leaders and they lose everything they have. Children are born and raised, pilgrimages are made and behind it all a civil war rages which periodically forces monks and earls alike to choose allegiance to a potential new monarch.
So as you can see there’s a lot going on in this 1076 page novel which definitely makes up for the occasional two page description of a new style of wall. I’ll admit that when Follett goes into depth on the actual building work (which doesn’t happen all that often), I did tend to skim read a little apart from one very exciting section where a young builder invents the flying buttress!
Pictured above you can see an excellent example of the use of the flying buttress on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They’re the kind of arches on the outside which are used to support the walls from the outside. I have a friend who, when we went to Brussels, spent a lot of time pointing out this particular architectural feature so to read a story of someone inventing it was very exciting for me!
I have to say that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and I would say a major part of this was down to the language used. Although it’s set in the 12th century, the writing and conversation is relatively modern – there are no ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s – which I’ve seen some review complain spoils the realism but for me it’s about making the time period accessible. The prose isn’t entirely modern but it’s up to date enough that the writing isn’t intimidating which I find to be a problem with other books set in the same period. I know language has changed a lot over the last thousand years and that the way this book is written isn’t the way people would actually have talked at the time but if I’m going to commit to reading over a thousand pages, I don’t want to have to read every sentence twice to be sure I know what it says!
My main regret with this novel is that Kingsbridge is a fictional town so I’ll never be able to visit the wondrous creation of Tom et al but Pillars of the Earth was certainly a masterclass in the lives of 12th century folk as well as a very entertaining saga telling tales of both everyday people and the upper echelons who ruled life in the 1100s.
I was all prepared to pan this book, I was mentally accumulating scathing reviews of the horrible, one-dimensional characters, the boring diatribes about the superfluous nature of food and the frankly lacklustre plot. In fact I held forth on this subject just last night when my housemate asked me what I was currently reading.
But then I reached page 390 and everything changed (which is very nearly an incredibly clever thing given the momentous significance of the figure 380 to the book’s central premise). For a brief moment everything I had thought about this volume was turned on its head and I had a series of revelations and emotions which I had not expected. And then, sadly, it ended just a shade too far back into preachy and leaving me curiously unable to decide on a final thought.
In brief the story centres around a group of people with improbable names – Edison Appaloosa, Pandora Halfdanarson, Fletcher Feuerbach – in a small Iowa town where everyone’s friends with the guy serving at the coffee shop (maybe Iowa’s really like that, I have no idea).
A depressed Edison flies in from New York to visit his sister Pandora and, realising that he’s put on a few more pounds than is healthy, she vows to get him back to the slim, happy chap she’s always looked up to. To be honest with you, as plots go I find this one a little…thin, if you’ll excuse the pun. Add to that Edison’s relentless monologues on jazz which drive his family (and readers) crazy and Pandora’s interminable quest to decide if there’s any point or enjoyment to food and it left me really cold. Not to mention Pandora’s moping over her, frankly vile, husband Fletcher.
I picked this book up because I remember reading an interview with Lionel Shriver where she complained that everyone always wants to talk about Kevin (see what I did there?) and never about her other works. ‘Fair enough’, I thought, ‘I really enjoyed Kevin so I should give something else a go.’ I don’t want to say that I regret that decision because that wouldn’t be entirely true – Big Brother DID make me think, not about food or obesity and definitely not about jazz but about….family maybe and the lies we tell ourselves to get by. That twist may have come a little too late to save my opinion of the book but I have to admire Shriver’s gift for taking you by surprise and switching things up.
Interestingly, while writing this review I checked out Shriver’s Wikipedia page and discovered that this book is essentially about her own brother who was morbidly obese and died a few years before Big Brother was published. That little titbit gives the whole think a new edge and makes it just a little bit more moving.
Sadly I don’t think Margaret Atwood and I are meant to be. I was really excited about The Handmaid’s Tale but then it didn’t really do it for me and now Alias Grace hasn’t really been a winner either. It’s a shame because she writes tales that should be perfect for me and so many people I know (and whose literary opinions I respect) have such wonderful things to say about her but it just doesn’t seem to be working out for us. Anyway, let’s turn to Alias Grace…
I too this picture in May but I only finished reading a couple of weeks ago.
It took me FOREVER to read this book (7 months to be precise). Partly because it was far too heavy to carry around with me and partly because I just didn’t get it most of the time I was reading.
A friend from work who had previously lent me two books that I really enjoyed loaned me her copy of Grace with the accolade that “it’s the only book she’s ever read twice”. So I was devastated to realise I didn’t like it when I started reading. I think a large part of my early dislike was due to the format of the writing. The first chapters are presented as letters between characters we don’t yet know and newspaper reports about events which happened prior to the book’s beginning. I find that this kind of format is tricky to get right and quite often I’m turned off by this style of writing which is what happened here.
Happily a large part of the book is actually written as prose from the point of view of Grace, a young woman who finds herself (wrongly?) imprisoned for the murder of her employer, or one of the doctors who is trying to establish her guilt or innocence. This is where the book took off for me – especially in its poignant accounts of Grace’s past sufferings and by the end I was actually gripped. I’m not going to give it away because I guess it’s at the back for a reason but when I turned the final page and read the author’s note the book took on a whole new level and for once I really wish that I’d seen that first.
I find it hard to say whether or not I’d recommend this book but on balance I’m glad I read it, take from that what you will!