The second volume of Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, Winter of the World, improves on Fall of Giants, the first. For one thing, it weighs in at 940 pages, which by Follett standards is concise. For another, it dispenses with some of the waxenness of its 985-page predecessor and breathes life into its fictional characters, many of whose parents appeared in the first book. The second-generation Winter of the World crew does enough procreating to ensure that Mr Follett’s third installment will be crowded too.
Fall of Giants spanned from 1911 to 1924, an era of such epic change that Mr Follett felt obliged to reanimate world leaders, from King George V to Woodrow Wilson to Winston Churchill to Leon Trotsky, as characters in his book. Winter of the World (covering 1933 to 1949) less strenuously views history through the eyes of purely fictional characters, dim though they may be.
“He felt excited, but he was not sure whether that was on account of Zoya or the superbomb,” Mr Follett writes of a Russian spy involved with a beautiful nuclear physicist at the dawn of the atomic age. “Maybe both.”
These books reel in readers with their simple talk, sharp twists and neatly nonsensical way of pairing earthshaking political events with frissons of romance. So as debate rages in Parliament in 1940, the brave, handsome Lloyd Williams waits on tenterhooks to see whether the prime minister will be forced to resign.
“The fall of Chamberlain would give him profound satisfaction, but it was by no means certain,” Mr Follett explains. “To distract himself, he thought about Daisy, always a pleasant occupation.”
Daisy Fitzherbert, nee Peshkov, is one of the notably headstrong women who populate both novels. Her lineage illustrates how complicated and vaguely incestuous the Century behemoth has become. Daisy is the daughter of Lev Peshkov, described as a “horse wrangler” in Fall of Giants and destined to emigrate from Russia to Buffalo. Now he is a wealthy, boorish movie mogul with enough clout to give Daisy major social ambitions. She has an illegitimate half-brother, Greg.
Daisy travels to England and quickly finds suitors, deciding to marry the one with the silly nickname (“Boy” Fitzherbert) and serious title (Viscount Aberowen). But although they don’t know it, two suitors are half-brothers, courtesy of Earl Fitzherbert, the noxious aristocrat who loomed large in the earlier novel. Lloyd turns out to be the offspring of the Earl, who felt entitled to take sexual liberties with his servants, and Ethel, the housemaid who went on to become a member of Parliament. Ethel set the bar for female advancement in Fall of Giants.
Times have changed so much that Daisy is the aggressor when it comes to sex. She also has a zest for this new book’s version of courtship. Fall of Giants favoured tender deflowerings. Winter of the World prefers a “then, to his surprise and delight, she knelt down” style of seduction.
But many are brought to their knees here, literally and figuratively. The story begins in Germany, at the time of the Reichstag fire and Hitler’s rise to power. In an early scene, brutal thugs sic dogs on a gay man; later, an intrepid nurse discovers that the disabled are being sent to a so-called hospital from which they will never return. And still later, Russian troops will turn out to be the most savage characters in this story.
The violence in Mr Follett’s stories can be raw, but it is also kept brief. One notable exception: scenes in this book capture the shock value of warfare in the Pacific. The assault on Pearl Harbour is described in a style so vivid that it recalls the 9/11 attacks. Usually, those events are presented the other way around.
It’s true that Winter of the World reduces Japan’s World War II strategy to a nutshell. The embargo against trade with Japan “makes them think that the only way to economic security is to have your own empire, as the British do, or at least to dominate your hemisphere, as the US does. Then nobody can close down your business. So they want the Far East to be their backyard.”
But Mr Follett is best appreciated as a novelist, not a historian. What he knows how to do is put readers’ hearts in throats, as when he sends one whole family of key characters to Hawaii for a December vacation in 1941.
The best of this book, the latter half, is as gripping as it is manipulative. It makes the biggest tectonic shifts of its era – the struggle between Communism and Fascism, the irreversible march of science toward nuclear weapons, the laying of groundwork for the coming cold war – feel momentous. So it would be surprising if this second installment did not prove to be the most powerful part of Mr Follett’s trilogy: because its naïve characters improve over time, because its era is more approachable than the later 20th century and because Mr Follett is so reassuringly old-school.
When Lloyd is briefly a prisoner of war and then escapes to France, this is what awaits him: Bread. Cheese. A beret. And a kindly stranger to say: “Come with me. I will ’elp you ’ide.”
©2012 The New York Times News Service
WINTER OF THE WORLD Book Two of the Century Trilogy Ken Follett Dutton; 940 pages; $36