Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: World Without End by Ken Follett

Sex in the… 14th Century Village?

So, what happened?

If I had the opportunity to interview Ken Follett about this sequel to his runaway, 1989 bestseller, Pillars of the Earth, that's what I'd ask him. I know that over twenty years have elapsed between the two books, and that people change, but I'd want to know when he stopped writing novels and started writing religious propaganda.

I still remember discovering Pillars, sometime in the late nineties, on a paperback table in a local Chapters. A few of my friends had recommended it, and after reading the back cover, I decided to pick it up. I hadn't read any of Follett's thrillers, and this story, about a monk and a mason who want to build a cathedral, seemed weighty and ponderous. I figured I'd have to slug through it.

I'd never been so delighted to be wrong. Pillars was a wonderfully crafted story, populated with characters who, if some became types, were written with warmth and affection. That included the main protagonist, Prior Phillip, the honest monk who longed to serve God but was often thwarted by those self-seekers around him, including several of the monks under his care. And while the book sketched a church rife with corruption, it did so according to the characters, not their ideology. The men and women in Pillars were self-aware, but not otherworldly so, and they fit with the book's 12th Century setting.

So, what happened?

I can't help but ask that question because the disappointment with his follow up is so severe. Pillars of the Earth, in some ways, was a bit of a soap opera, but the melodrama was contained somewhat by the loving care with which Follett described the architecture and the importance it played within town life. Unfortunately, there's no such affection in World Without End. I would say that Follett gets the historical details right, except it doesn't take long to realize that the characters here have been transplanted from a very, very long episode of Sex and the City. The male characters are either cruel or weak, except for the gay monk and any man born with some sort of physical shortcoming. The female characters think and dwell in post-enlightenment, post-feminist, post-modern, post-male, post-digital, post-universal ideas with much confusion and angst. This would make sense, of course, if they HAD been transported back in time. Maybe that's the chapter Follett forgot to write, in which case, the book would make a lot more sense.

The main character, Carrie... errr… Caris, is confused about everything. She's the daughter of one of the town's leading men (one of the few good men in the book, but he also has a deformed leg, so naturally, he's a good guy) and she hates that men can do whatever they want and she cannot. Follett, who clearly thinks that his main character is an excellent feminist who only cares about equality, doesn't realize that he's actually shown what he thinks of feminism by turning her into a petulant, whining brat. Caris also dislikes the church because the monks don't value rational thinking and the only reason the church exists is to keep people down. So, she muses about this quite a lot. She wonders why Reason and logic are not more valued. She never writes these thoughts down, but who knows, perhaps Descartes was thinking about her when he started his own musings on rationalism 150 years later.

Anyway, Caris loves one of the men in the town, Merthin, who's a brilliant engineer but also small and not good looking. (Can you see a pattern here?) He wants to marry her, but she doesn't know what she wants, so she muses more about the fate of women, who seem to have no option but to marry men, all of whom will inevitably lord it over her. All except Merthin, who is quiet and gentle. Still, he's just a stupid man, so Caris bullies him in her moodiness, toys with his emotions, is completely unable to get a grip on her own, and generally treats him like crap. Is this Follett's idea of feminism? Does he realize that he's drawn his proto-female savior as a complete jackass? According to Follett's rendering, she's just a bit confused. That is, what will she do with all this incredible 21st Century self-awareness? Why couldn't we set the time machine ahead just a little?

Between the musings of our central reporter, err, character, we have the battle of good vs. evil, as revealed in the battle between the nunnery and the priory. Women vs. Men. And the winner is… well, the monks, of course. Those jerks have everything handed to them. The convent is prosperous, and the nuns are all kind and caring. The priory is filled with a bunch of shallow, dim-witted men, who can't figure out why they keep losing money. That statement, by the way, is repeated throughout the book. The monks apparently have no idea why they're losing money. (They never do figure it out.) The nuns do even better however, when Caris somehow recalls a book she read from Italy that reveals a new method of book keeping that allow her to keep track of her assets and liabilities on either side of the ledger, which makes it, like, so much easier to figure out if the convent is ahead. Why, she's the greatest accountant since the guy who got Capone on tax fraud! Oh wait, that doesn't happen until 1933, and here, it's only 1333. Never mind. Oh, and did I mention that Caris single handedly saved her father's business by, you guessed it, single handedly discovering a new way to dye wool. It's all so amazing!

Trouble comes however, when Caris ends up being accused of being a witch, and because she has a mole, you know, down there, she's like, totally a witch. And none of those stupid townspeople will listen because they're all scared and a bit slow. (We did do the nose and hat, but she's still a witch!)The prioress saves her though, by offering Caris a place as a nun. She knows that this angry young rebel doesn't actually believe in God, but the girl is such a good leader. So strong! But even she doesn't know that Caris is not just going to be any nun, but THE GREATEST NUN THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

The novel skips ahead a decade, and Caris is now one of the leaders in the convent. No, she doesn't have faith and has no use for God, but she's actually more warm and caring than the rest of the nuns (probably because she knows how stupid the whole God thing is), and the whole town knows it, too! Also, she's super smart, (did I mention what a good leader she is) and it is she who discovers that the prior has stolen the nuns' money to build himself a palace. He refuses to give it back. This is an outrage, of course, so Caris sets off to find the bishop, who is travelling with King Henry III as the English army sweeps across France. No problem. She'll get that money back no matter what.

So she sets out from the convent, and boy, she is really mad. Accompanying her is a beautiful younger nun, Mair, who's also a lesbian and in love with her. They do experience some difficulty when the two of them, alone, cross into France, and discover that the English army has raped and burned the French villages along the coast. Another big problem is that the sexual tension between the two nuns is pretty high, because the two girls have had sex, but Mair really, really loves Caris and Caris still thinks a lot about Merthin, although he's moved to Italy and she's still not sure whether or not she wants to marry him. Merthin is so unfair. Why can't they just keep having sex like they did before? Anyway, that makes it really hard on Mair, who really, really loves her and is so hot. So between the sexual tension and relational difficulties, along with the burned out villages and two massive armies trying to destroy one another, Caris realizes they need a disguise. The two of them dress like men, and manage to fool both the French and the English armies, even though they first must spend a full week on the battlefield helping the French surgeon dress wounds. When she finally gets to confront the king, she is very, very frustrated with him because he just won't listen to her. Typical man! The soldiers however, are gossiping about these amazing nuns, who have somehow travelled across two countries and two armies at war without a scratch, and have also managed to heal their relational difficulties. Thank goodness Caris is so clever!

Meanwhile, back in Kingsbridge, the man she loves, Merthin, continues to startle and amaze the townspeople with his nifty inventions, but hhe has been unable to convince the town to let him use his genius again to help rebuild the church tower. The townspeople, you see, are mostly stupid. (Those 14th Century morons.) Especially the men. So even though Merthin's ideas have literally saved the town from destruction, twice, no one supports him. (Did I mention that Merthin is small and not very good looking?) Thankfully, Caris gets back not a moment too soon, and she shows him what he needs to do to win the town over. There are more obstacles, but Caris overcomes them all. She resigns from the convent, appoints her successor, also manages to appoint the bishop and the prior, and finally decides to marry Merthin, as they become partners as the town's two most influential people. Did I mention that through a large swath of the novel Caris helps the town overcome the plague and is appointed not only as the head of the convent, but the head of the priory as well?

So, Mr. Follett, I know that I'm repeating myself, but what the hell happened?

About fifty pages into this book I started getting angry, but I kept reading in the hopes that I would find the same writer who'd once written one of my favourite novels. When it didn't happen, I kept reading because I knew that I would review it, and I wanted to spare people the fourteen bucks and hours of time reading this narrow minded schlock. The characters in the novel are not actually people, they're excuses for promoting Follett's agenda. Never mind that they have no nuance to them, what really offends is this idea that people are either good or bad. In Follett's case, bad people are those who believe in God, good people choose reason instead of God and treat people in the church as either weak minded or devious. Follett's ideas about feminism are as offensive as those of a fundamentalist, in that while it seems like he's favouring his female characters, what he's really doing is showing you just how silly women are, in his opinion, when they get power.

I'm sorry, but if you haven't figured out that people are not simple, and that religion and gender and sexuality has nothing to do with whether or not a person exhibits admirable qualities, then it's time to stop writing. Or at least, label your work like they do for Muslim fiction and Christian fiction. Just let us know that you're working through an agenda. Or write the chapter with time machine and how Caris was really an assistant on Sex and the City, and wanted to be like Carrie except that she wasn't funny and had no apparent flaws.

In Diana Gabaldon's review of this book for the Washington Post, she called it a morality play. That's one author showing kindness to another. World Without End treats both its characters and readers as idiots, and produces the same smugness Caris exhibits towards the people in her village. If that's what it means to be non-religious, I think I'd suddenly want to go to church. The irony is that Pillars of the Earth was written as a result of Follett's love for cathedrals, with the understanding that such cathedrals were not only a place to inspire majesty and grace, but to unite towns and villages behind a single idea, the acceptance of their own humanity. Twenty years have gone by, and Follett no longer has any use for humanistic ideals about the great possibilities that lie within people or the difference we can make in the world around us. His title reflects as much, and after you finish reading it, you realize that World Without End is not a statement of hope, but the conjoined misery of a rich, old man, who looks around and realizes that no matter what we try to do to make things better, things will never really change, and the world will keep on spinning out its misery.

Zero stars (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010