I tend to get a moment of heart sinking when I pick a book this size off of the shelf in a book shop and will generally put it straight back unless it comes highly recommended. Too many are 200 pages of story and 1200 pages of waffle. Thankfully, that is not an accusation you can level at Pillars of the Earth. It is surprisingly easy on the eye for a doorstep sized novel and after a false start in which I only read the prologue a few weeks back, I was surprised to find I flew through the first 150 pages over the course of about 3 hours or so. So far so good.
So what is it about? A period from England’s history that many people are unfamiliar with. Of course, those with more than a basic level of history will have heard of King Stephen and might know that he was a bit of a shit (Follett supports this popular view which contrasts Ellis Peters’ potrayal). Others with more in depth knowledge might accept him as a great General but a poor monarch. Most might know that he was involved in a civil war that could have ended up with our first Queen – and appointed legitimate heir of King Henry I – Empress Matilda/Maud.
Yet it is as much about the civil war as it is about the people whose lives it affects; it is also jointly about the building of a Cathedral. This is where the book starts, with the mason Tom and his family as they set off in seek of work. Tom has struggled and suffers several bouts of ill fortune and when he reaches a castle of Earl Bartholomew and is promptly hired to upgrade the defences, he thinks his luck has changed. But it isn’t to be because a local nobleman by the name of William Hamleigh has designs on the castle and specifically the Earl’s daughter, Aliena. William sees himself as a dashing and energetic young nobleman who seduces many women (read “sociopath” and “serial rapist”) and when he discovers that the Earl is to support Matilda, he seizes the castle and burns it to the ground; Tom is forced to leave again. Finally, he ends up at the priory and a random act of arson sees him hired to build the new church.
The design and construction work is intricately detailed as the subplot of the civil war between Stephen and Maude takes hold. In the other subplot, Aliena seeks her revenge againt the Hamleigh family and restore her family fortunes while her father is in the gaol. With these three stories running at once, it’s no wonder the book flows so well. However that is not to say that it isn’t overwritten because at times you have prolonged periods where next to nothing happens and it isn’t particularly conducive to building the plot. To be fair to Follett, I would suggest that around 100-150 pages could have been cut which is good going for a novel close to 1100 pages.
The final parts leaps 15 years into the future and the most important event in the life of Henry II: the assassination of Thomas Beckett in Canterbury Cathedral. This brings all story threads to a dramatic close and a satisfactory end for the novel.
Very enjoyable, but in two or three places you’ll feel the need to skim read for a while and its overall length might require a bit of patience.