Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 387
Year: 2015 (29 January)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas Graham PurdyReview
It is 1951 and winter has gripped the city of Boston in a vice. These are dark times for the city. The post-war years have left the streets in decline, the residents depressed, the politicians as corrupt and violent as the gangsters who control the city’s businesses. Even the streets themselves are up for sale, whole neighbourhoods sold to the highest bidder for demolition, communities destroyed by dirty deals. It is a year since the Great Brink’s Robbery, the largest robbery in US history, its proceeds lost in the unhappy streets. And now in this brutal winter which has locked Boston in ice, a serial killer is loose.

Two children walking their dog along the bay discover the remains of the latest victim, a young woman, her throat slit, her body frozen. In life the woman was Sheila Anderson, the sister-in-law of Dante Cooper, a man trying to reclaim his life from drugs and debt to thugs. Dante’s closest friend, Cal O’Brien, used to be a police detective but now, damaged by his war experiences, he runs a respectable private security business. But now both men have one thing on their minds – justice for Sheila. Going undercover, the two men become vigilantes, digging deep into Boston’s secrets, discovering that there is much more to fear than a serial killer. For every discovery they make, the risks soar and the cost becomes ever more dear.

Serpents in the Cold is a historical mystery that manages to consume the reader, pulling him or her into this dangerous world that is little removed from us in time but is a world away in so many ways. The atmosphere is close and claustrophobic. The city feels almost like an island with everyone trapped inside it. Boston’s criminals flourish in all levels of society. It feels unclean. The ice and the cold are bitterly felt. This is a chilly novel indeed. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the ice to melt so that they can make their escape from this trap that is prowled by conmen, gangsters and murderers. It’s not just the serial killers who kill, though. There’s a strong sense that police are losing control and that they need the help of Cal and Dante to solve these murders but Cal and Dante are not your typical detectives.

This is an extremely noir-y and violent novel, reflecting the violent times. The authors pull no punches. At times it is shocking, building up to a climax that is both edge of the seat and disturbing. Cal is haunted by horrors and they come and go through the pages. For Dante, his nightmares are in the present. The story of his marriage is harrowing and we can understand why it means so much that he find justice for his wife’s sister.

As the novel proceeds, we are guided through Boston’s underworld, introduced to its businessmen and politicians, its thugs, and those who are trying to live an honourable life, caring for families, looking after those worse off. Sheila becomes more and more crucial and, although a murder victim, she has a presence throughout the book. Adding to the atmosphere and the strong presence of Boston itself as a central character, the book contains several contemporary photographs of the city in 1951.

There are no tidy resolutions in Serpents in the Cold. There’s a sense from the very beginning that things are going to get nasty and they don’t disappoint. Holding it all together are the charismatic figures of Dan and Cal, each with their own problems and resolutions, but each bringing hope to the novel through the force of their friendship and their dedication to pursue justice, however dirty it gets.

Melnitz by Charles Lewinsky

Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 634
Year: 2006, this English trans. 2015 (5 February)
Buy: Large Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Melnitz by Charles LewinskyReview
First published in 2006 in Switzerland, this is a review of the English translation of Melnitz to be published by Atlantic Books at the beginning of February.

In 1871, a knock at the door of cattle-dealer Salomon Meijer changes the life of the entire Meijer family. But this will not be for the last time. Over a period of almost seventy years, strangers enter the lives of this family, sometimes with the most unpromising of entrances, but always they transform it, bringing love, marriage, business opportunities and, often disturbingly, news of life beyond the island of Switzerland.

Anti-Semitism is well-established and a part of everyday life in central Europe in 1871, although some prefer to keep it hidden, with both Jews and non-Jews maintaining a polite distance, curious and puzzled by the customs and habits of the other. But over the course of these seventy years, all this is changed by the rise of National Socialism. The Meijer family is luckier than most, safe in neutral Switzerland but, while Switzerland becomes a sanctuary for the lucky few to escape Germany, the Meiers are not alone in feeling under threat. Not all of them are safe. And whispering in their ears the entire time, through all the years of love, marriages, disappointments, achievements, births and deaths, is the voice of Uncle Melnitz, the man who dies over and over again, his sole job to remind his kin of the plight of the Jews, to take the edge off every moment of happiness, to forewarn and tease.

Melnitz is a grand family saga covering five generations of the Meijer family and divided into four sections: 1871, 1893, 1913 and 1937. When the story begins, Janki arrives on the doorstep of Salomon (to whom he is complicatedly related) half-dead and a refugee of the Franco-Prussian War. Janki is French and as he revives and is adopted into this family, stirring up the two young women of the house, he brings about his dream of opening a shop to sell the finest Parisian fabrics. But Janki is not only a Frenchman he is also a Jew and it takes time and trouble for his life to become established. As we follow Janki and his family we watch Janki endure increasing prejudice until one event happens in particular that will almost rob him from these pages. This is a true power of Melnitz – the characters engage us with their daily lives, their small adventures and their little achievements but sometimes something will happen and that will snap these people right back into their shells. Occasionally, characters will be inspired to undertake great acts of bravery – two stand out in particular, during the First World War and in the months leading to the Second – but some disappear into themselves. It is painful for us. We get to know these people. It’s difficult to watch them suffer.

Five generations come and go through the novel. Some characters stand out more than most, some disappear too soon, others prove themselves to be extraordinary while others are shown to be perfectly normal, living from day to day, engaged with their family and/or business. But then they get a jolt – the arrival of another outsider, and the small world of Switzerland is expanded once more. Repeatedly, though, there are shocking reminders of what the Jew must suffer. One can dress the same as everyone else, even undergoing baptism, but everyone will always know – a Jew is always a Jew.

I am such a fan of family sagas. I love to become involved with people through decades of time, watching them change and, hopefully, meet their just desserts, whether for good or bad. This novel is a little different because you know that events are underway that are outside the characters’ control and the shadow of National Socialism is about as dark as a shadow can get. Melnitz appealed for all these reasons and it was a compelling read. It is a very substantial book, beautifully written, and it develops slowly. It is full of daily life, revealing the eccentricities of the characters – Salomon in particular is quite a character while Arthur, a 1930s doctor, is such an appealing figure, taking years – and many pages – to know himself. The female characters are slightly less well developed in my opinion but Chanele, Salomon’s adopted daughter who is no daughter, is wonderful. Throughout we are introduced to a veritable host of cameo figures who come and go, each leaving their mark. The pace is slow at times but it is by no means dull. The banter of conversation, the telling of events, relationships and foibles is done with such delicacy and wit. And now and again Uncle Melnitz adds the slightest breath of fantasy.

The narrative is interspersed throughout with Yiddish terms. I can understand why but I did find these a little tiresome after a while, despite the lengthy glossary at the back. There are an awful lot of them. There are also more typos and errors than I would expect – they probably only number a few but I found them very noticeable. The prose itself, though, is really rather beautiful in places, in words and in structure. The English translation by Shaun Whiteside is excellent.

While the first half of Melnitz seems to be all about establishing the family, its relationships, its village life and business aspirations, the second half is about the impact of the outside world on that life. This meant that, for me, the second half was a much faster read and I got drawn further and further into these lives. But the second half wouldn’t have had the emotional impact it had without the background lovingly laid down in the first. Melnitz is a rewarding, thoughtful read. It contains frequent moments of light, shining in an increasingly and frighteningly dark world.

Ostland by David Thomas

Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 434
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Ostland by David ThomasReview
It is February 1941 and a serial killer preys upon young women in the quiet carriages of Berlin’s S-Bahn trains. The city is horrified and expects the murderer to be caught swiftly. Commissioner Lüdtke is in charge of the case, which drives him into the ground, falling asleep with exhaustion at his desk, but his methods are textbook. He becomes teacher to Georg Heuser, a new, young and idealistic police detective, who, in his very first week, is faced with a case that is in danger of defeating even Lüdtke. But Heuser has a natural talent for detective work – he rejuvenates the hunt, inspires his team, becomes obsessed with the drive to rid Berlin of this evil. It is no less than a personal crusade, a battle of intelligence and wills between himself and the S-Bahn murderer. But this is no ordinary case – how can it be? Controller of the police force is Reinhard Heydrich and this is the very heart of the Third Reich.

In 1959 lawyers Max Kraus and Paula Siebert have their own case to pursue – the prosecution of Nazi war criminals who committed atrocities on the Eastern Front, in Ostland. At last they have their target. They make a sensational arrest, a police chief known as the Beagle by his staff for his unfailing ability to track down the criminal. To Krause and Siebert he is a monster and his name is George Heuser.

When Ostland begins, the reader is soon nestled within the familiar world of the police procedural crime novel. We follow the clues along with Heuser, watch him learn his trade from Lüdtke, becoming a crucial member of this tired and dedicated team of detectives, falling in love with the female member of the team, on the hunt for a killer who preys on women, disturbing the calm of a vibrant and arrogant city. But it’s not long before everything is thrown up into the air and the pieces scatter. Interspersed throughout the chapters set in 1941 are others set almost twenty years into the future. In these, Kraus and Siebert have to discover what it was that turned a good man into a man as evil as any produced by the Reich. What happened to Heuser?

The development (if that’s the right word) of the monster within Heuser is mirrored by the novel’s movement from west to east. Once Heuser attracts the attention of Reinhard Heydrich, the controller of Reich security (including its police forces), and is moved to Minsk the days are numbered for Heuser’s morality but it is much more complicated than that. Everyone, including Lüdtke, has to ‘manage’ the rise of Nazism in one form or another, but Heuser’s degeneration is on another level entirely and his case throws open the diabolical truth of Nazism that many could have turned a blind eye against in the prosperous streets of Berlin during the early days of war.

The ironies are overflowing – that Heydrich could have been so appalled by murder in Berlin; that Heuser could have wanted to protect Berlin’s women but held life so cheap in the East. Heuser tells his story in the first person and this makes it all the more horrifying, as the warmth grows cold. It’s not often that I’ve read a novel where the reader’s relationship with the narrator becomes increasingly antagonistic as he becomes more and more unreliable. Heuser is perfectly able to describe the police procedural of the early chapters but once he is in the East, the reader has to make use of his or her peripheral vision, watching around the edges of the narrative for the appalling truth. It’s an extraordinary self-portrait of a man’s disintegration.

The story of Max Kraus and Paula Siebert is inevitably overshadowed by Georg Heuser – his voice is just too compelling. But it is complete in its own right, with Paula in particular experiencing her own transformation, in her career and in her personal life. This is a time in which female lawyers were few and far between and to make matters more tense they are working in a Germany trying to come to terms with its past and to make amends.

Ostland is an extremely powerful novel. It races along as all crime fiction should but it is as harrowing as it is thrilling. We meet numerous people along the way, all of whom leave their mark. Its structure is clever and effective and it is a book that refuses to leave you for quite some time. Outstanding and near impossible to put down.

For two other reviews, please do see Nick’s at Reading Gives Me Wings and Raven’s at Raven Crime Reads.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Publisher: Fourth Estate
Pages: 544
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Bought copy

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony DoerrReview
It is 1944 and leaflets fly through the air of St Malo, a medieval walled city almost entirely surrounded by sea on the French coast. The leaflets warn the inhabitants of the great storm to come – the allies are about to bomb the city and all who can should leave. Marie-Laure, though, is a young girl and she is blind. She cannot read the leaflets. She hides in her great uncle’s house, waiting for the bombardment to end, wanting to protect the model of St Malo that her father built for her so that she could memorise her way around the narrow streets, but listening out for the signs of evil entering the house in the guise of an unwanted guest. The war is about to get close enough to Marie-Laure that she could reach out and touch it.

Moving between the past, present and future, All the Light We Cannot See allows us to enter the lives of two young people, the French Marie-Laure and Werner, a gifted German boy who knows how to make radios and anything mechanical work. Marie-Laure had lived a relatively content life in Paris with her museum locksmith father, coming to terms with her blindness – she lost her sight aged six – and learning the streets of the city through the models made by her father. That all changed when the Germans invaded the city. Marie-Laure and her father joined the flood of refugees, hiding in St Malo in the mysteriously wonderful house of her great uncle and his strong, brave housekeeper. Werner, just the same age, lived in an orphanage with his sister. His genius earned him the attention of the powerful and he is taken to a military school populated by blond haired boys with blue eyes. It is a baptism of sorts and from it he emerges into a world on fire with war and hatred and death and loneliness. Inevitably, the stories of these two individuals will touch in a novel that carries the tale right through until the present day.

All the Light We Cannot See is a magical novel, lit by the most beautiful prose and gently powerful stories. Werner and Marie-Laure are quiet individuals, vulnerable in many ways – the girl because she cannot see and the boy because he is trapped alone in a system he cannot fight – and yet the drama of the events that surround them is as loud as the bombs that hit St Malo hour after hour. This mingling of the innocent with the guilty and the quiet with the loud is extraordinarily effective and brings the horror of war and the devastating cruelty of the Nazi regime into sharp contrast. Watching events unfold through the perspectives of these two young people, on opposing sides of the conflict though they may be, works very well.

There are moments that stand out among many memorable chapters. I loved the journeys that Marie-Laure is taken on, all without leaving the house, by her eccentric and fascinating great uncle. The moment when the young blind girl walks in the sea waves for the first time is extraordinary and deeply beautiful and sensual. There is much suffering in this girl’s life but there are moments of beauty. For Werner there is very little of that. The scenes set in the military school are harrowing indeed, training the boys to become obedient Nazis. But it is not black and white. Werner is not evil, but what he observes is and his part in it is something that he must deal with throughout the novel.

Moving through the book is another story – the mystery of a blue stone which has the power to protect and preserve its owner while destroying everything he or she holds dear. Whether this power is true or not, it certainly seems real to many and it complicates the fates of many of the characters that we grow close to through the novel, as well as others we don’t. The mystery adds another dimension to the book, giving Marie-Laure and Werner the hope of fantasy or escape. But is is gently done.

The reader is in the position of knowing more about the Nazi regime than our young witnesses but seeing it unfold through their developing experiences adds something both poignant and powerful to its telling. The characters of the youngsters, Marie-Laure in particular, are richly alive and unforgettable. I’ve read a fair few novels about war in this commemorative year of 2014 but All the Light We Cannot See is my favourite.

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 400
Year: 2014 (6 November)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Time and Time Again by Ben EltonReview
It is Christmas 2024 and Hugh ‘Guts’ Stanton is a man with nothing to lose. His wife and children are dead, killed in a road accident just a few months before. So when Sally McCluskey, his eccentric and difficult to dislike (or ignore) old Professor, summons him to Cambridge to spend the holidays with her, to talk about her latest project, he has little reason to say no. What if, she asks him, you could go back in time and change history, which piece of history would you put to rights? This is the question that has been handed down the line of Masters of Trinity College for the longest of times. McCluskey is now Master and it is at this time that the question can finally be answered.

A door to the past is about to open. Hugh Stanton, an adventurer and ex-military man with nothing to keep him in the present and nothing to look forward to in the future, is ideally placed and skilled to step through that door and to prevent one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century – the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his Duchess in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914.

This, then, is where Ben Elton takes us in his new thriller, Time and Time Again. I have also given you just the barest of bones because this book is packed to the rafters with surprises (some of them are belters) and much of its pleasure derives from its shocks. The premise might sound rather familiar – it did make me think of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as well as Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, plus, in a commemorative year that resonates with the legacy of 1914, the premise of Time and Time Again might appear on the face of it too neat. But after the fewest of pages, it became entirely clear to me that Time and Time Again would defy all my expectations. Ben Elton has taken a popular premise and made it his own in the same way that he has done something wonderful with the tried and tested timeslip genre. Two Brothers was one of my very favourite reads of 2013 – Time and Time Again is every bit as striking and memorable.

Ben Elton has a strong sense of the burden of history and it is as apparent in Time and Time Again as it was in Two Brothers, albeit this time we are touching on a different war. With the benefit of hindsight, both ours and Hugh’s, the significance of the smallest detail in Hugh’s journey in the past is felt so strongly. The historical details and settings are meticulous and vivid. Moving through history, Hugh tries to stay aloof, to keep clear his mission, but the past slowly brings Hugh back to life, he starts to find its colour, reassured that his own past is now eradicated, the future unwritten.

There are so many conundrums in this clever novel that a reader needs some wits about them. Arguably, nothing is easier or harder than to change history and it’s not long before Hugh is tied up in his very own Gordion Knot. But while this is intellectually enjoyable and teasing, Time and Time Again also contains some simpler pleasures, not least in the character of Irish suffragette Bernaette ‘Bernie’ Burdette who is an absolute delight. Likewise, there is humour, especially in the shape of Professor McClusky who gets most of the good lines and enjoys telling them. Above all else, this novel sparkles with such a powerful, all pervasive love of the past and a deep sense of foreboding for what might happen if people should think themselves foolish enough to be able to play with it.

Without doubt, Ben Elton is one of the most exciting authors about. I was so excited when I learned about Time and Time Again and I am delighted, but not surprised, to have found it marvellous.

Other review
Two Brothers

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 278
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie TidharReview
Herr Wolf is an immigrant in 1939 London, one of many Germans driven out from the Fatherland after the fall of fascism in the 1933 German elections. Wolf was once the leader of German fascism but, with his own country caught in the vice of a communist revolution, Wolf, as he now calls himself, makes ends meet as a private detective, living in London’s underworld, amongst its gangsters, thugs and prostitutes. Wolf would never choose to work for Jews unless desperate but desperate he is when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office. Her sister Judith is missing, one of many immigrants smuggled out of Germany and now lost. Isabella knows exactly which buttons to press. Wolf is soon entangled and descends even deeper into the rot in London’s poorest streets and its racket clubs, so many of which are run by the men who once, years before, clicked their heels at Wolf.

But none of this is real. Shomer lies dreaming in the hell that the Nazis have created. He is in Auschwitz, his family slashed in two, his wife and children gassed, his own survival unlikely. Before the Holocaust, Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. Now he survives one day at a time by dreaming an alternate history, one in which Hitler never rose to power but instead has to hide himself in a foreign city under a different name, working for the very people he despises, pitied and repudiated by Britain’s own rising fascist faction, and reduced to something less than human by the the lust and hatred that has twisted his soul.

In A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar has created an extraordinary vision of a shifted, dark and rotted world. At its heart Shomer lies dreaming and throughout we are given brief and painfully graphic glimpses into his night and day. In the centre of his dream is Wolf and for most of the novel we watch Wolf move through his London, chasing the missing Judith while also working on his other mission to keep Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist with dreams of becoming Prime Minister, safe from assassination. While at times we see Wolf through the omnipresent eyes of our narrator, there are many other times when we descend into Wolf’s mind though his journal entries. This is a nasty place to be and no attempt is made to win over the reader. Instead, the clever shifting narration keeps us at a safe distance as we sit and observe Wolf.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a most unusual book – our leading character is despicable and we are constantly reminded of this, by the condition of Shomer and by Wolf’s own condition. Wolf is a man immersed in sin and the evil he has created is his own reward as Shomer struggles to hold on to his own life and sanity. We watch Wolf unwind and the violence he suffers has the satisfaction of fate about it. A Man Lies Dreaming is about a man who cannot be saved; our empathy and feeling is reserved entirely for Shomer.

The other characters in the novel all have a purpose designed by the dreamer. Their function is to define, torment and disintegrate Wolf. The characters from Wolf’s past are there to remind him of what he’s lost while Mosley and the Mitford sisters taunt him with what could have been. Isabella Rubinstein and her father exert a justice that is painfully precise and justified. Other characters live in in the memories that Wolf recalls in his diary, so many of them now destroyed. Familiar names are thrown at us throughout and there is no little satisfaction in fitting them back into history as it actually happened. The London that it depicts is also well done. Both familiar and different, this is a London where fascism is on the rise but where the downtrodden, the beaten and the victimised are beginning to fight back.

A Man Lies Dreaming might be dark and powerful and at times painfully graphic (sex and violence – especially the sex) but I found the novel fascinating and extremely difficult to put down, reading it in a couple of sittings. It’s hugely clever, aimed at (and hitting) both the reader’s heart and mind, witty and completely absorbing. Lavie Tidhar is a writer with extraordinary flair and wit – as I already knew from his previous novel The Violent Century – but in A Man Lies Dreaming Tidhar takes extra steps and the result is an incredibly brave and imaginative novel, evoking in a such an unusual and effective way the trauma of the Holocaust, and without doubt it will feature in my top ten books of 2014. And what a fantastic cover.

Other review
The Violent Century

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 1003
Year: 2014 (16 September)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettEdge 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.

Other review
Winter of the World