Reviewed by Ian Lipke
When I contemplate Ken Follett’s massive novel, I wonder how any writer of extended texts can hope to maintain the interest of today’s readers. Yet my own involvement grew as I made my way through the multilayered issues Follett addresses. Sub-plots can be as simple as the story of the young mother Kiah who simply wished to live an improved life in France and travelled subject to the whim of a slaver to do so. Kiah’s relationship with the silent but effective Abdul occupies a large part of the book and paints, once and for all, the dangerous life of the definitive government agent and of the woman who gives her all to him. At this microlevel we see, drawn with as much care as the major players, the careful characterization that makes Follett’s people human.
Follett’s major characters re-enact the story of Abdul ‘writ large’. Pauline Green is president of the USA, charged with ostensibly very different responsibilities but reflective of the dangers Abdul meets. The consequences of her making an error are catastrophic for humanity. Her opposite number, President Chen, is conscious of what devastation he is likely to unleash if he makes an ill-considered move in the global argument. Each of the major players has ambitious yap-dogs snapping at their heels, thus providing increased tension and a greater likelihood that a blunder might occur. Genuine members of each of the American – Chinese camps work with their opposite numbers to keep vital information moving and known to their masters, each aware that an enemy can take advantage.
Readers very soon realise that the character of the novel changes. North and South Korea play a role that is dangerous to world peace. Rebel elements in North Korea challenge a leader who gambles on China intervening to save his government and his life. A weak North Korean leader ranged against a headstrong leader in South Korea, who is focused on personal glory, is a recipe for annihilation. All that is needed is an uprising in China by the ‘old guard’ Communists to set the major players on a path to World War 3. Of course, this is precisely what happens.
This is, in fact, the prime reason why Follett wrote his book. Over its massive length, an increasing whisper becomes a murmur and then a flood. The jealousy of men and women with no qualities that make them fit for high public office hold the power of earthly annihilation. Leaders of minor lands should never be capable of manipulating the statesmanlike properties one expects of devisers of policy among the superpowers. (Follett may well have been thinking of the US presidency vacuum that flourished before this one).
Limited use of nuclear weapons, little fights to stop big fights…such attempts harvest failure in Follett’s book. He shows the blind thinking and resultant purgatory of living that is associated with a paucity of intellect. Yet the little guy is not forgotten. Abdul and Kiah are among the winners because they fight for limited objectives with an intelligent grasp of a problem whose parameters are understood by them and never beyond their capabilities.
The book is massive in dimension and stupendous in weight – yet never once did Follett lose me.
By Ken Follett
$32.99; 832 pp