World Without End is Ken Follett's "sequel" to his similarly colossal novel, The Pillars Of The Earth, which was set in the 12th-century. It appeared two decades ago, and has become his bestseller. Like its predecessor, World Without End is set in a fictional Wiltshire cathedral city, "Kingsbridge".
Now, 200 years have passed, and the cathedral's structure is collapsing. The novel's central figures are Merthin, a soldier's son but a mason and architect, and Caris, an independent young woman who loves Merthin but is none too keen on marrying him, chary of a wife's expected obedience. Much of their on-off romance revolves around the rebuilding of the cathedral and, with it, the city – unsurprisingly, since Follett is a self-confessed cathedral buff. Set at intervals between 1327 and 1361, the novel has four main characters, but perhaps 20 important ones.
Follett plainly has several aims. One is to recreate, in plain English and contemporary dialogue, what local life was like – politics, agriculture, theology, law, medicine, food, sex, trade, property. Sometimes the language is so plain it's stilted.
This is also true, particularly at the outset, of Follett's attempts to smuggle research into the narrative. When the two central female characters, Gwenda and Caris, visit a herbalist, they are shown behind a curtain. "Why do you need to hide all this behind a curtain?" asks Gwenda. She is told that "A man who makes ointments and medicines is called an apothecary, but a woman who does the same runs the risk of being called a witch." Explanations like this always seem ponderous.
If this sometimes feels like being stuck in a history lesson, it's always an interesting one. Follett is keen to bring out the inherent conservatism of the squirearchy and church, and their overbearing maleness. He's also keen to emphasise the superstitions which govern local lives, and the climate of casual terror: murder and rape are commonplace, judgments are often rigged, and punishments brutal. The account of one miscreant being flayed alive is disturbingly precise.
Follett also (as in Pillars...) sketches the wider political world, most notably, if improbably, when Caris witnesses the victory at Crécy – from the French lines! – and meets Edward III. Here too, he is determined to make a point: great battles are really tyrannous, booty-driven slaughter-fests. But not such virulent killers as the Black Death, which overshadows the central chapters, and which pits religious superstition against medical intelligence. The plague scenes are expertly handled.
Where Follett excels is in telling a yarn. There is sufficient intrigue here, enough turns within double-twists, to hold readers through all the 91 chapters. Style takes second place to structure and plot. World Without End is exciting, full of sudden reverses of fortune – all the fun of the unfair. The comeuppances are surprising and satisfying. Assuming you can pick the novel up, you won't be able to put it down.
Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' (Cinnamon) was shortlisted for the Forward prize for best first poetry collection
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