Edge of Eternity concludes Ken Follett’s epic Century trilogy, which begins with Fall of Giants and continues with Winter of the World – I would most definitely advise that you read and savour the three novels in sequence.
After four years, three books and nearly 3,000 pages, Ken Follett’s engrossing and epic journey through the key events and social upheavals of the 20th century comes to a close with Edge of Eternity, an enormous novel that covers the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Follett takes us back into the lives of these American, Russian, German and English families, each interconnected, and it feels as if we’ve never been away. Having survived (or not), the First World War and revolution in Fall of Giants and the rise of the Nazis and World War Two in Winter of the World, it is now time for the sons and daughters and grandchildren to endure and overcome the Cold War, the struggle for racial equality, Vietnam, the social transformation of the 1960s and the oppression of the Iron Curtain. Beginning with the erection of the Berlin Wall in the dead of night in 1961, Edge of Eternity vividly depicts the devastating effect this physical and cultural barrier had on families while, in the US, black men and women risked their lives to bring equality to the free world.
A trilogy that covers a century moves through the generations but if, like me, you had fears that too long has passed to remember all the back histories of these familes, then you needn’t worry. We are aided by family trees and dramatis personae but mostly by the clues that litter the text. The previous two novels, especially Fall of Giants, are so memorable, it all comes flooding back. Now, though, we are largely concerned with the original characters’ grandchildren, those who grow to young adulthood in one of the liveliest decades of the century, the Sixties.
Key among them is George Jakes, a black lawyer who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life after he is attacked on one of the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom buses in Alabama. Through George and his colleagues we enter the White House and Justice Department of the Kennedy brothers. In Russia, we have a set of twins, a brother and sister, one trying to salvage the Communism his grandfather fought for while the other seeks to subvert it, piece by piece. In the UK, two young siblings whose grandmother helped to change the social order of WW1 Britain make waves in their own way, though music and acting. Finally, in what is arguably the most powerful of the novel’s threads, we have the Berlin family that, having survived and fought the Nazis, is now split in two by a Wall and an ideology that has vengeance on its mind.
Edge of Eternity is an extraordinary novel, truly an epic and engrossing from its very beginning, its appeal intensified because we now know these families so well and Follett has placed them at the very heart of world affairs. I could not put the book down, despite the damage caused by carrying around a hardback with this many pages in it (this is a very heavy book!). But, despite this, reading Edge of Eternity was not all plain sailing. I had issues with it and at times it made me frustrated and cross. But before I get to that, here are some reasons why I am so glad I read it.
Ken Follett makes us a witness to events, whether it’s the assassination of a president, an escape over the Berlin Wall, or a visit to a rigidly hostile Siberia. The prose races along, we’re caught up in the adventure, and the pace is relentless. Whether the event is something on the magnitude of the Cuban missile crisis or something like a pop concert held against the Wall so that those on the unfree side can listen in, or Watergate or the rise of Solidarity in Poland or a raid in Vietnam or a much respected old lady taking her seat in the House of Lords, it’s impossible not to care and not to be swept along by history. The chapters flit between the key characters, accelerating the pace even further. Follett does a great job of reproducing the staging and dialogue of landmark moments in the century, mixing so well fictional characters with historic figures.
It’s difficult not to be moved by watching familiar events unfold. I shed tears on more than one occasion. But just as much poignancy comes from watching the fictional lives develop and run their course. I cared deeply for some of these characters, most especially those in Germany, while others, such as George in Washington DC, fascinated me. Throughout this long novel, it is always a pleasure to return to each of the characters. I had such a hunger to know how everything would turn out and, as it happened, I was content.
Now to the downside.
During my review of Winter of the World, I noted that I wasn’t happy with the way that the novel’s female characters were sexualised to what I thought was an excessive degree. I was disappointed to discover that in Edge of Eternity, this is taken to an more obsessive level. There are a number of women with key roles in the novel but their value is repeatedly degraded – there isn’t a male character in the novel who doesn’t look at women with a predatory eye. First and foremost, women are depicted as sexual objects. In the midst of the most traumatic or significant event, a male character will still take time to assess the breasts of the woman next to him. Women without children at 40 are looking for substitutes for their maternal love and mature powerful women in Washington government and intelligence strip off in a changing room together to compare their breasts while still discussing the illegal actions of the President in Beirut. When one of the women meets another who is heroically helping to change the shape of Polish politics, she takes a moment to reflect that if she were a lesbian she would fancy her. I lost count of the number of times a character came home only to surprise his or her partner in bed with someone else. There is not a single female figure in Edge of Eternity with emotional authenticity, which is quite unlike their depiction in Fall of Giants. In Winter of the Worlds this obsession with sex and women as sex objects was an irritation but in Edge of Eternity it presented a real hindrance to my appreciation of both its male and female characters and to my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.
Despite my frustration with Follett’s depiction of women, I was still glued to Edge of Eternity. In a way, the fact that it made me feel so strongly shows me how close to the story I have become. I had been worried that this final book could not live up to the drama of the previous novels’ World Wars but, aside from the rather tedious story strand of a 1960s’ Beatle-esque band, it delivered. I was fascinated by the insight given into the workings of the Politburo and the Oval Office and the struggles of families to survive in the American South, in Siberia and in East Berlin. Being able to remember so well some of the events, notably the fall of the Iron Curtain, certainly added to the novel’s emotional impact. Conflicts rise but in Edge of Eternity, there is a driving movement towards peace, justice and equality, giving its families, who have survived and done so much, cause to hope. When I finished it, I wanted to go straight back to the beginning and read the trilogy all over again.
Winter of the World