by Julia Kuttner
Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
I waited seven months to read Ken Follett’s latest Best Seller, such is his popularity with library members, and I’m happy to say that it was well worth the wait. He may never scale lofty literary heights but what a good storyteller he is, and how credible are his characters. He has produced (yet again) the consummate read – a rattling pace, Love (True and not so!), the horrors of war and revolution, and a meticulously researched account of the seeds that were sown to germinate the War to End All Wars, World War 1.
The story starts in 1911 and ends in 1924. This is the first novel of a trilogy and deals with five families: The Williams family, Welsh miners and unionists; The Fitzherberts, English Aristrocrats absolutely certain of their ancient, inalienable rights as the ruling class; two impoverished Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, eager to escape the crushing burden of serfdom under the hated Czar; the von Ulrichs, German Junkers and diplomats – Otto the father, implacable in his dream of the domination of Europe for his Kaiser, and Walter the son, doing his utmost to avoid war at all costs; and American Presidential Aide Gus Dewar, for a large part of the war a worried spectator of events until early 1918 when the United States finally entered the conflict.
Mr. Follett is a master at keeping the reader turning the pages at a furious rate as he moves effortlessly from continent to continent, marshalling his characters with the precision of a chess player. He sets the scene beautifully for future events: Ethel Williams, young housekeeper to Earl Fitzherbert takes fatal steps above her station; her young brother Billy, ‘down t’ pit’ at thirteen and in the army to become cannon fodder at 16, becomes implacably hardened in his support of socialism after surviving the Somme under the inept leadership of aristocratic superiors; brothers Gregori and Lev choose very different ways to escape starvation and the Czar’s corrupt police - Lev, irresponsible and charming, skips Russia to end up eventually in Buffalo, New York, whilst Grigori is conscripted into the Army to fight the Germans; and Walter von Ulrich enters into a secret marriage just before war is declared that will have consequences for all.
‘Fall of Giants’ could essentially be seen as a family saga and a love story but all is framed by the huge and momentous events of the early twentieth century: no-one emerges unscathed from the cataclysm of war and revolution and there is a sad inevitability that the second book in the trilogy will pose yet more trials for characters who have become unforgettable. Regardless, Mr. Follett’s storytelling expertise is such that, potential tragedies notwithstanding, the reader will again be swept up in the lives of these five families – and soon, one hopes. I trust Mr. Follett is pounding away at # 2 on his keyboard as I write!
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, refers to a little rhyme that Southern children learn to enable them to spell ‘Mississippi’ and with a name like that, any assistance would be helpful. The people of this story are much the same, tricky to read , complicated and full of twists and turns in this beautifully written novel from Tom Franklin – his marvelous imagery encompasses the land as well as his characters, and the reader is blessed to read such fine prose. He chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of the tiny, dying hamlet of Chabot, Southern Mississippi: naturally, everyone knows everything about everyone, including the fact that Larry Ott, the town outcast and mechanic whom no-one ever takes their cars to, probably – well, FOR SURE – killed a girl 25 years ago, but was so fiendishly clever at hiding the deed and the corpse that the law was never able to arrest him. Now another young girl has gone missing, and who else but Larry Ott could be the prime suspect, bearing the brunt of the finger-pointing, the name-calling and various acts of vandalism to his property: he done it FOR SURE!
And who else but Larry Ott could bear such vitriol with stoic resignation and Christian meekness – that’s how he was raised after all, the only child of a Good Christian Woman and a Good Ole Boy who views Larry with contempt for his allergies, asthma and pudgy frame – and even worse, his obsessive reading habits. ‘Git yore nose outta that Goddamn book and mow the lawns – git some fresh air for a change!’ Larry has been behind the eight ball for a long time, a good, lonely boy grown into a decent, lonely man – until his mother’s daily prayer for him to ‘find a friend’ – which he did when he was 14, and once more at the age of 41 – produces horrific consequences: Larry is fate’s plaything, and fate is in a foul mood. Mr. Franklin captures time, place and idiom with ease. He has created a most satisfying mystery, a page-turner of the first order and a fine exposition on the Southern way of life - functional and otherwise. And let us not ignore the sly vein of humour throughout the book: ‘Miss Voncille, did yall ever date Crazy Larry?’ ‘Yes, only the once, and ah was nevah seen agin’. This is a dang fine story!
Instruments of Darkness, by Imogen Robertson
Imogen Robertson won the Telegraph’s first thousand words Competition in 2007 by submitting the start of this book, her first novel. It is a murder mystery, set in 1780, and the prose is as elegant and genteel as the characters and time of which she writes. She has researched thoroughly the political and social mores of country and city life and writes convincingly of the huge gaps between rich and poor, noble and base, and the glaring unfairness of gender inequality: her heroine, Mrs. Harriet Westerman, runs a prosperous estate in Sussex while her husband, a Naval Commodore, is at sea – she is forthright, independent and used to making independent decisions, but is constrained by society’s expectations of how a ‘Lady’ should comport herself. It is not socially acceptable for a woman to take on a murder investigation, even if the corpse was found on her land; consequently she has to enlist the aid of Gabriel Crowther, recently-arrived ‘natural scientist’, an anatomist whose reputation is illustrious and far-reaching, but a recluse who has secrets of his own. There is also a dissolute Nobleman (the main suspect), his dastardly steward and a cast of minor villains hell-bent on murder, and as the story progresses the corpses pile up in a most satisfactory way – one even gets his throat ripped out by a leopard! Oh, it’s all good Georgian fun, and the denouement when it arrives has a twist that surprises, as it should.
Ms Robertson is a fine writer, tapping a new vein in the crime genre by giving her work its 18th century setting; her characters, too, could never be confined to a single story and are thoroughly deserving of a sequel, ‘Anatomy of a Murder’. I look forward to reacquainting myself with these reluctant pillars of respectability as they triumph with respectable but determined resolve over evildoers once again.