The Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

I read this sequel to Fall of Giants quickly and with a good deal of interest, although I’ve decided in reading a Ken Follett novel that it’s important not to expect more than he’s going to deliver as a writer. It picks up the stories of the several different families explored in Fall of Giants — English, American, German and Russian families — about fifteen years after the last book ended, in the mid-1930s. The Great Depression is going on; the aftermath of the First World War is still unfolding and paving the way for the Second. The babies born during the last book are teenagers and young adults now, finding their way in the world and, of course, falling in and out of love as the world hurtles towards, and then through, a second war. This book takes the story past the end of World War Two and into the early years of the Cold War, exploring the huge events of those years through the eyes of young people from several different countries.

Some of the things Follett does are quite interesting: for example, he has the German family gradually become aware of the true horrors of the Nazi regime, not through what happens to their Jewish acquaintances (though that is, of course, given some attention) but primarily through the lesser-known but equally horrific Nazi treatment of physically and mentally disabled people, when a developmentally delayed child dies in care at a special Nazi “hospital” and one of the characters becomes curious enough to investigate. It’s really interesting to get a perspective on what the war years might have been like for a nurse in Berlin, an ambulance driver in London’s East End, a diplomat in Moscow, etc. Follett does a good job of weaving the personal and the political together, as when two Russian characters who are quite well-regarded in the Party are honoured to have Stalin show up at their wedding reception — only to have him receive a  piece of news and leave abruptly, obviously upset. He has just received word that the US has dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

If you like twentieth-century history this is a good, quick-moving way to explore it and get a bird’s-eye view of its major events. That said, if you like your fiction literary, you’ll find Follett’s style grating at times. For a bestselling author, his writing is breathtakingly mediocre. Everything is right out there on the surface: there’s not a hint of subtlety. Everything a character says is exactly what s/he means, and then Follett often comes along behind as narrator to tidy things up and tell us what the character meant, just in case we missed it. So if we read: “‘I’m proud of you, son,’ he said,” we not only know that he is exactly, literally, proud of his son, we can also be pretty sure the narrator will be right along to explain, “He had never been as proud of his son as he was that moment.” Nothing is left to the imagination.

If this kind of writing doesn’t bother you, and you like history, then you’ll have no problems at all with The Winter of the World.  If it does, you may still find the storyline and the historical background enough to be drawn into it anyway, as I was. 

Conveniently, near the end of this book, all the characters have babies, just in time for them to grow up and star in the third volume of the trilogy. I’ll probably still be grinding my teeth over Follett’s writing style, but yes, I’ll be reading it.

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