Friday, January 01, 2016

THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, by Ken Follett

I must admit I have a fear of big books and The Pillars of the Earth is a HUGE book. It’s not that I don’t like these big guys, but the thought of getting started and then sticking with them until the end seems daunting. What if I’m not committed enough to finish the job? However, with Pillars, that fear is completely unnecessary. This epic novel is literally unputdownable.

I bought it for my personal library collection in November 2008 and seven years later, I plucked it out of my bookshelf and got started. I can no longer claim that Pillars is my first historical novel because that place was taken by Wilbur Smith’s River God, which I read sometime in August this year—loved that one!

Pillars is set in 12th-century England and concerns the building of a cathedral in the fictional town Kingsbridge. The story brings together three ambitious men: the idealistic and humble Tom Builder, the pious and compassionate Prior Philip, and the unscrupulous Bishop Waleran Bigod. The four-decade story spans from 1135 through 1174 and throughout those years, I went on a roller-coaster ride of my life experiencing the struggles, religious fights, battles, and my goodness, there is never a shortage of problems that affect the progress of the cathedral and the fortunes of the protagonists. I must say I’m not a big fan of the Hamleighs and the brute William Hamleigh is an idiot. There are also no shortage of independent and resourceful women in Pillars. My favorite is the beautiful and bewitching Ellen who was mistaken for a witch. I really like Jack, Ellen's son.

The choices we make in our life really do affect the outcome, and in the case of Pillars, for many years to come. Aliena, the young and strong-minded, beautiful daughter of the ex-Earl of Shiring has refused to marry William Hamleigh and canceled the wedding causing the Hamleighs much humiliation. Although she can’t be faulted for the ensuing mayhem after that, she does seem to be the root cause of the problem (at least that’s what she thought for herself, too, many years later). And then just when you think your life will become better and more secured, hell breaks loose or new sets of problems emerge. Life is hard for these folks, more so if you're a woman in the Middle Ages.

For all the suspense and treachery in this epic tale, I had my burst-into-tears moments. Pillars is also a good love story. Here are some of my favorite passages:

Aliena: But he had noticed her: he had loved her secretly all those years. How patient he had been! He had watched as the younger sons of the country gentry came to court her, one by one, and went away again disappointed or offended or defiant. He had seen—clever, clever boy that he was—that she could not be won by wooing; and he had approached her sidelong, as a friend rather than a lover, meeting her in the woods and telling her stories and making her love him without her noticing. She remembered that first kiss, so light and casual, except that it had burned her lips for weeks afterwards. She remembered the second kiss even more vividly.

Jack: ‘My mother fell in love with an oddity.’

Action, intrigue, violence, passion, architecture, politics, ambition, greed, bravery, dedication, revenge, love, forces of nature (famine, storm). The Pillars of the Earth has them all. This is the best book I’ve read in 2015.