The first of Follett’s Century trilogy, Fall of Giants is a saga which covers the years 1914-1924. It follows the lives of five families, all inter-connected either through close ties, chance encounters, or events. The novel follows these families and characters through the momentous events of this decade, telling their individual stories, and the world-changing events which they witness.
Follett’s task is a massive one, and he manages it with more success in some places than others. The Russian scenes are perhaps those which stand out the most. His depiction of life in Tsarist Russia, the experiences of the Russians on Germany’s Eastern Front, the turbulent events which led up to the Revolution in 1917, and the complicated mess facing the Bolsheviks following the revolution were all excellently told through the eyes of Grigori Peshkov, and put into context by the opinions of other characters in other countries. For example Earl Fitzherbert, an English aristocrat, is appalled by the socialism which he sees as having destroyed a nation and denied his own half-Russian son his inheritance. Conversely the Welsh mining families cheer the revolution as an example of oppressed workers overthrowing those who had no right to rule over them.
The ‘fall of giants’ is obviously the biggest theme of the novel, and signifies many things – not only the fall of great countries such as Germany and Tsarist Russia but also smaller things, such as the superiority of individuals. Grigori Peshkov is no longer downtrodden by his social superiors and the police. The rich Vialov family in Buffalo, America, loses its great fortune. Earl Fitzherbert loses the ability to make things happen just because of his noble birth. Lowly characters rise, too, such as Ethel Williams and her brother Billy. The final scene in the novel is the most powerful, and sums up this entire theme.
One point for criticism could also be an achievement: Follett manages to tie in all of the key facts and events and connect them to one of his characters. This is implausible, and gives the impression that he is ticking things off a list. For example, Walter von Ulrich has to be present at the German discussions concerning unrestricted submarine warfare, personally escorts Lenin across Germany and Earl Fitzherbert translates the Zimmermann telegram. All of these things are important because they are essential for telling an accurate story, and Follett should be praised for not shying away from the facts. They are crucial for the reader to understand the unfolding of the war and how it will affect the characters, but it can seem a little contrived. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how it could have been done in another way without resorting to dull and reported facts.
The real strength of the novel is the characterisation. The protagonists are well-drawn and fully-fleshed out, with interesting individual stories and distinct personalities and ways of speaking. Their differing opinions tell the story of 1914-1924 better than any checklist of events. It will be interesting to see how Follett continues his story in Winter of the World, which will undoubtedly feature the children of the main characters of Fall of Giants. The third book in the series will be titled Edge of Eternity, continuing the saga into the Cold War.
This review was written after listening to the audiobook, read by John Lee. He does an admirable job, especially considering the vast array of accents.