On a weekend in late March my partner and I went to Arundel for the day and found ourselves browsing in a fabulous secondhand bookshop (Kim’s Bookshop) spread over a number of floors and packed with fascinating books. I bought two Ken Follett novels – Fall of Giants and Winter of the World – the first two books in the Century Trilogy (having previously enjoyed reading Pillars of the Earth by the same author – see my blog). At over 800 pages long each I put them to one side to read at home, as they were too bulky to take on holiday or to commute with. I finished Fall of Giants last weekend and have already started the next in the series.
The book opens in a small mining village in south Wales, Aberowen, where Billy Williams (called Billy Twice by his friends and neighbours) goes down the pit for the first time on his thirteenth birthday. Billy is the first of a huge cast of characters to be introduced to us, characters that centre around six families in Wales, England, America, Germany and Russia, all brought together by a connection to the Aberowen mine or the nearby country estate Ty Gwyn. The cast list is so long it takes six pages to list at the start of the book, and that is one of the things that make this novel so fantastic – the vast sweep of lives unfolding from 1911 to 1924, against the backdrop of the world-changing historical events of the period.
There are diplomats here, alongside suffragettes, miners, unionists, Russian communists and princesses, Earls, ladies-maids, pioneering female journalists, government ministers, gangsters, teetotallers, and, of course, soldiers. The diplomats are desperate to stop the outbreak of the First World War, and it is chilling to watch their near misses and to see war coming ever closer. Various forbidden lovers then find themselves swept up in fighting, or war work, or running newspapers to counter the propaganda and to show what is really happening on the western and eastern fronts, until eventually they mostly emerge from the war and into a changed world.
This book is breathtaking in its breadth and depth and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in this period of history. It’s gone to the charity shop so that someone else can pick it up and enjoy it.