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Posted on 6 Apr 2018 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 2 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on a bad book

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I’m surprised to find myself writing about Ken Follett’s 1000-page-plus The Pillars of the Earth (1989), because it’s a very bad book. But some points are worth making. I’d read several Follett thrillers – Eye of the Needle (1978), The Key to Rebecca (1980), Night Over Water (1991) and enjoyed them. I’d avoided The Pillars of the Earth because I’d read that it concerned the building of a cathedral and I regard cathedrals as resource-wasted monuments to a delusion. But when I saw I could get 41 hours of narration free as a frequent audio user and was told that it was a medieval bodice-ripper I selected it thinking there must be more to it than cathedral building.

There was, a lot more, but I almost gave up after a few chapters. Despite the book being set in the 12th century, the characters had fully modern sensibilities, consciousness and vocabularies – a cardinal error. Good historical novelists like Rose Tremaine, George Shipway, Robert Graves and others have the knack of flavouring their writing in a restrained, nuanced way to suggest the period, the setting and the voices to induce the reader to suspend disbelief. Nothing of the sort here – apart from the use of official titles, and the description of certain customs, we might as well be in a costumed version of the here and now. One character actually bids her parents goodbye with ‘See you later’.

Ken Follett contributed an introduction to the edition of the book used in the audio version. After explaining how he came to his obsessional interest in medieval cathedrals, he describes his interest in writing on the subject, his abandonment of it for a time and the negativity from his agent and his publishers. Eventually he rejected their counsel, engaged a researcher and spent three years on the book. He told of its lukewarm reception and how it gathered momentum and sales in an unstoppable progression. He is correct in saying that word of mouth is the best promotion, wrong in saying it is his best book and surely ingenuous in claiming to be unsure of the reasons for its success. The reason is clear – the story is larded with sexual episodes that are explicit, graphic and ludicrous. Nipples stiffen, male members become rods of iron or shrivelled worms, juices flow – a feast for the prurient.

I kept listening (the reading is utterly professional, capturing accents and age and gender differences expertly) out of a sort of horrid fascination. Could this cavalcade of mostly stereotypical characters – an evil lord and bishop, a saintly monk, a resilient beautiful heroine – lasting over a series of melodramatic and unlikely episodes get any worse? It did.

Long-winded accounts of building techniques could be of interest only to specialists; historical events are sketched perfunctorily. The worst historical misstep comes at the end of the book when King Henry II submits himself to a whipping as penance for his part in the killing of Thomas Becket. The book’s leading character muses (apparently with authorial endorsement) that things will never be same again. Wrong. As anyone acquainted with British history knows, Church and Crown remained locked in bitter, destructive enmity for hundreds more years.


  1. Ah Peter, for my sins I started this – I was going on a fairly long trip & it’s a big book. I’d usually take my iPad on holidays for ease as I’m a fast reader. Foolishly left it behind and was stuck with ONE BOOK; in fact one truly rotten book! I hate giving up on a book – I’d be interested to know how many pages or chapters you get into before you toss it in the bin?

  2. Ahhh, see, I’m usually a sucker for books with dirty bits, so I’m glad I read this review first. You’re spot on in terms of the jarring use of contemporary language in historical fiction – it’s a sure-fire way to turn readers off. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Peter, this was a really interesting perspective1