I read half of this book at various points last year, and read the other half whilst on a 14 hour bus ride this week… so I’ll count this review for this year, especially since I wrote it on said 14 hour bus ride.
This is a book about history; a book about a cathedral. It is about England and the Church, about good and evil and the spectrum between. Most of all, it is the story about people who fill that spectrum: people who do good things for bad reasons and vice versa.
People have described this book to me as the “multi-generational story of a cathedral” and I suppose that is an accurate description. To me, however, as a historian and a Catholic, it is first and foremost the story of the Church, exemplified by the tale of Prior Philip, woven into the story of civil war between King Stephen and Queen Maude.
I was impressed with the book’s use of religion, mostly because, even at the end, I have no idea how Follett himself feels about religion – there is no moralizing and no insolence. Religion is viewed through the lenses of the characters. Tom Builder sees it in terms of practicality: what the Church can do for him and others. Ellen views it scornfully, because she has seen it used against good men. Bishop Waleran uses the Church for his own means, but, strangely, not without regard and piety. Prior Philip sees the Church as something inherently good, although he is not fooled by the men who use it. It is his view which has the greatest power, for Philip is, first and foremost, a good man – not a perfect man, for he struggles with his own faults, but a man who constantly strives for truth and beauty and God and Good-with-a-capital-G.
I found myself struggling, perhaps because of my religion, to identify and like Ellen and Jack, the most sceptical characters. (No one could entertain the thought that William, the greatest villain and a large percentage of the narrative, is at all likable or pitiable, though he is, in fact, pathetic in the oldest sense of the word). I liked Tom and Aliena because of their determination, their selflessness, their struggles to be good, but it was Philip whose story was the most engaging for me.
I loved how the importance of the ‘true’ historical narrative waxed and waned in importance, going from a distant struggle between rulers who favored the Church to different degrees, to the ultimate example of Church vs. state: the assassination of Thomas Becket, which is seen through the intensely personal perspective of Philip. (And this is hardly a spoiler, as I would hope that most people know from the outset of his introduction that Becket is doomed.) It is this event that leads to the saddest moment in the book, a line which sticks with me. Philip stares down at the body and thinks “The savages have won.” It is heart-wrenching, the climax of fifty years of Philip’s struggle for good against evil – but it is not the end.
The book is not perfect. The jumps between point of view characters is often erratic and not usually clearly delineated. For a book with such an enormous cast of characters, many of their encounters are positively Dickensian in their coincidence. The story could have been resolved with fewer twists and turns, to be honest; sometimes the epic scope seemed a bit contrived. (This is, perhaps, a bit of writerly envy. I wish I could write something so involved.) Every decision influences another down the road. It is, undoubtedly, impressively woven, but it was the human element, the pathos of the human struggle for good, that most won me over.
And now I’m off to chase down the miniseries. Hopefully it will live up to the book.