Some historical fiction is literature. It pulls you into another world, immerses you into the lives of people whose backgrounds and ideals are entirely different from your own. It surprises you with the twists and turns characters’ lives take. And it’s usually written by Dorothy Dunnett.
And then there’s historitrash. It immerses you into the lives of people whose backgrounds are entirely different from your own but whose values are oddly familiar. It usually offers dastardly villians, noble heroes, and fair but feisty maidens who act according to the pattern set out for them. It might be written by, say, Philippa Gregory.
Although I have a strong preference for the more literary type of historical fiction, there’s a place for historitrash in my reading diet. But it has to be good historitrash. It has to offer some surprises, include some three-dimensional characters who don’t seem too modern, and demonstrate that the author has done some solid research. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is my idea of good historitrash. Much too soapy to be great literature, but it’s rip-snortingly good, smart reading.
So where does Ken Follett’s wildly popular novel, The Pillars of the Earth, fall? At first, I had hopes that it might be on the literary side. First of all, it takes place in the 12th century and involves the building of a cathedral. Not a Tudor queen in sight. The characters initally seem promising. Prior Philip is a monk who is (brace yourself) in no way sexually deviant; in fact, he’s a contented celibate. Early on, we meet Tom Builder and his wife Agnes. Tom’s greatest ambition is to be a master builder of a great cathedral, but because of his family’s abject poverty Tom must make a horrible decision that goes against anything we are taught today but that might, just might, be the only tragic alternative for a family living in his time. Yes! This is a whole other world! The characters do have annnoyingly modern speech patterns, but that’s better than a bad attempt at 12th-century English. And if it helps readers get a better sense of who the characters are, fine.
Unfortunately, as the book goes on, the chracters become more predictable and one-dimensional. The two main women are (surprise, surprise) spunky and independent—and literate. Really? In 12th-century England? Ok, there were some literate women in those days (Hildegard of Bingen, for example), so I can cope. I can also mostly cope with the too-evil-to-be-believed villians. I did learn to skim whenever William came on the scene. Brutalizing women turns William on, and Follett subjects his readers to pages of William’s sexual fantasies, both those in his head and those he acts upon. He’s a bad, bad, bad, man. I get it. I don’t want every single gory detail. (And don’t get me started on the over-the-top descriptions of good sex.)
But still, I can forgive all this if Follett delivers a good story. And he can do that. He often does. There were times when I was thoroughly engrossed in the story. But the pattern of characters facing a challenge, triumphing over it, only to be met by another challenge that they then triumph over got old. What made it even worse is Follett’s overexplaining. He tells us exactly what his characters are thinking before, during, and after any major, or not-so-major encounter. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the characters’ thoughts weren’t so obvious.
Put simply, this book does not need to be 973 pages long. At about halfway in, I was ready to be done. At 750 pages, I was hurling the book across the room. If this weren’t for my book club, I probably would have hurled it out the door. Some judicious cutting would have given readers 500-600 of thumping good historitrash. Too bad I had to wade through 400 pages of dreck to find it.