- warning: spoilers! -
this has been on my to-read shelf for a while, ever since i became obsessed with the bbc miniseries of the same name, a few years back. i didn’t remember much of the miniseries by the time i got to reading the novel (have just recently finished it), so i was able to read the book with relatively fresh eyes.
overall, this was an enjoyable read, and epic in many respects - in scope, in ambition, and certainly in length (it is nearly a thousand pages and i’m guessing it weighs in at around 500,000 words). there’s a lot to admire here: the characters are distinct and interesting, and the prose is generally of a high standard - while not breathtakingly eloquent throughout (ugly phrases, such as “his eyes raked the [such-and-such]” and “with his heart in this mouth”, are constantly repeated), the writing is functional and manages occasional descriptive details that conjure up vivid imagery. what’s most impressive is the interweaving of historical facts into the fictional narration; the novel acts like a time machine, so the reader feels transported back to the 12th century - something that good historical novels should do. i also liked that the entire epic novel centered around the almost mundane act of building a cathedral; somehow, follett manages to turn this simple act into a crucial centerpiece. the title is also magnificent; follett certainly knows how to title his novels.
however, the book is not without its flaws. at first, i found the story to be engrossing, with the politics and the deception, but the further it progressed, the less interested i became, and after 600 or so pages, i just wanted it to be over. part of the problem was aliena, who becomes a central character midway through. in the miniseries, i remember her being lively, intelligent, and charismatic. unfortunately, in the novel, she struck me as none of these things; instead, she was more of a failed attempt at trying to render a lively, intelligent, and charismatic character. time and time again, we hear the other characters, as well as the narration, commenting on how exceptionally “remarkable” “intelligent” and “wonderful” she is – and it’s clear that’s how follett intended her to be – but the entire time, i kept feeling irritated by her sheer – stupidity. she makes a series of nonsensical decisions that lead to utter catastrophe for herself and her brother: when their father is captured and taken to winchester, instead of following their father there, living in their winchester house, visiting him in prison, and trying to find a way to release him, like anyone with common sense would have done, they decide to stay alone in their abandoned castle and play games. they’re then attacked and raped while alone in the castle, but manage to flee, and a series of further misfortunes befall them – one after another – to the point where the novel read less like realist fiction and more like lemony snicket’s a series of unfortunate events. finally, she manages to start a successful wool business, but again makes the silly decision to keep all her wool (her entire fortune’s worth!) in one place where it could (and did) easily all go up in flames. and then, of course, she decides to marry alfred for money. if worldly possessions were her motivation, surely she could have done better. a lot better! and a lot wealthier! or she could have married jack for love, gone with him until he found a job (probably would not have taken long, given his talent), and her brother could have just come with them. or she could have restarted her wool business. but no, for some reason, this “intelligent” girl thought alfred was her only option; and of course, the marriage turns into an abusive nightmare. i remember all this playing out better and more logically in the miniseries, but it just didn’t work in the novel. instead of a strong, intelligent, independent woman, aliena came off as stupid, illogical, bitchy, whiny, unable to decide for herself and buffeted about by the men in her life.
if aliena really were the “intelligent” and “remarkable” girl that follett purported her to be, then at the height of her wealth, she would have hired an assassin, or devised some other plot, to take out the villain, william hamleigh. instead, she and the rest of the townspeople do nothing, even going so far as to help william out of the church when it collapses and he is injured. this was the same man who had burned their town to the ground and murdered countless of them. since it was a lawless time of civil war, it would probably have been easy for anyone to just slip the murderer some poison, be rid of him, and get away with it. but aliena et. al. continue to just endure william’s acts of inhuman brutality. they don’t even think to build a wall when rebuilding their town; instead, they have to hastily throw together a makeshift wall to defend themselves against william’s next attack. not the brightest bunch.
speaking of william, it struck me, throughout the course of the novel, how much it resembled a work of fantasy, with its villains and heroes, witches and princesses. like the characters of pure evil in much of fantasy, the villains of pillars are excessive in their villainy – raping, scheming, and murdering in the most imaginative fashions - without any hint of good. and, like much of fantasy, the women on the side of good are repeatedly described as “beautiful”, especially the “princess” aliena, who, like many fairytale princesses, has men falling in love with her at first sight and suitors lining up at her door because of her beauty. while the villain, regan, is witch-like, with her hideous ugliness (repeated over and over and over) and her face full of warts. i found such dualistic fantasy tropes to be – oh so childishly disney.
but despite these flaws, this was an overall well-executed book, with moments of great artistry. it’s easy to become immersed in follett’s world of 12th century england, and the work as a whole is certainly above average.