Ken Follett believes in the power of a good story. And he harbors no doubt about attention spans in an era when people avert their eyes to smartphone screens approximately every 1.2 seconds.
Twitter and Facebook should be no match for Edge of Eternity, Follett’s 1,100-page concluding novel in his "Century" trilogy. The century in question, for the uninitiated, is the 20th. Since 2010, Follett, who made his bestselling name as a thriller writer, has now published three epic historical novels, weaving world wars, political assassinations, and social movements through stories involving a cast anchored by five fictional families and their descendants: American, Russian, Welsh, German, and British.
The series starts with “Fall of Giants,” in which the various families and characters are swept from obscurity to the front lines of history. Best of all, Follett manages to keep the story plausible whether he is describing the Russian Revolution or a boy working in a coal mine in Wales. “Winter of the World,” published two years later, picks up the story and characters while delving into World War II and the start of the Cold War.
The final book, published this month, begins with the Freedom Rides in the American South and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. More than a thousand pages later, the first African-American president, Barack Obama, takes office.
Follett once again benefits from detailed research. For this book, he rode a bus from Washington to Atlanta, seeing some of the same sights encountered by the college students and other protesters who flocked from the North to stand alongside the African-Americans who risked their lives in a campaign to nudge the promise of “all men are created equal” closer to reality.
His fictional cast includes George Jakes, a young African-American man working in Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department. George is the illegitimate son of a white US senator and his African-American mistress and becomes a Freedom Rider before going to work in Washington. Among his peers: a young woman, also an African-American, who works in the White House press office and who carries on an affair with President John Kennedy. (Follett’s research included discussing JFK’s infidelities with Mimi Alford, whose 2011 memoir described her days as a White House intern, where she became one of many presidential mistresses.)
Follett being Follett, the assassination of JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the Civil Rights movement, are only the start of his novel. Watergate, rock and roll, Reagan and Beirut, glasnost, and the fall of the Berlin Wall all figure into “Edge of Eternity.” Somehow, Follett largely avoids the where’s-Waldo clumsiness historical novels can suffer from.
Across the world from George Jakes, another character, Dimka Dvorkin, an aide to Nikita Khrushchev, grapples with personal crises and the stress of watching military advisers push for nuclear war.
Dimka becomes a father during these years of brinksmanship, but falls in love with a co-worker who isn’t his wife. Tanya Dvorkin, his journalist sister, dabbles in anti-Communist demonstrations, threatening both of their careers. And when she is assigned to write for state-run newspapers in Cuba – in the line of fire for a presumed American invasion over the Russian missiles – the tension increases.
All the while, Dimka serves Khrushchev, hoping to help the Russian premier outmaneuver the overzealous Soviet generals as well as Kennedy and the Americans.
Follett occasionally slips into exposition-heavy dialogue, a persistent threat in historical fiction.
Consider this exchange between George Jakes, serving as an emissary to Martin Luther King Jr. on behalf of RFK, and Verena Marquand, a fictional King aide. George and Verena, during a lunch in Birmingham in April 1963, discuss the perils of fighting Bull Connor and Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace.
Verena answers George’s question regarding the violence of the KKK in Birmingham with a Wikipedia entry: “This is a steel town, and the industry is in decline. Skilled, high-wage jobs have always been reserved for white men, while blacks do low-paid work such as cleaning. Now the whites are desperately trying to maintain their prosperity and privileges – just at the moment when blacks are asking for their fair share.” Oh, and pass the sugar.
Such missteps, thankfully, are rare. Follett makes the fate of George, Dimka, Tanya, aspiring rockers Walli Franck and Dave Williams, East German teacher and defector Rebecca Hoffmann, and the rest of his sprawling cast feel every bit as important and relevant as the historical backdrop.
What Follett has achieved in these novels is remarkable, juggling plots and characters and timelines while keeping the pages turning over the course of three long but very satisfying books.
Twenty-five years ago, Follett published his first historical novel, “The Pillars of the Earth,” the building of a fictional cathedral in medieval England. Now, with the "Century" Trilogy at an end, he has already confirmed plans to write a sequel. Here’s hoping Follett keeps writing from here to eternity.