The Pillars of the Earth was originally released in 1989 and was a major departure for Follett, until that time known as a writer of thrillers. The book is a sweeping historical epic, taking place across some thirty years of 12th Century history, beginning with the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud and ending with the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. The story focuses on the hamlet of Kingsbridge and its growth as a churchman and a visionary builder, Philip and Tom, join forces to build the grandest cathedral in all Christendom. Their vast ambition is constantly tested by the machinations of Archdeacon Waleran and the jealous bitterness of William Hamleigh, a local nobleman. As the cathedral takes shape, the story moves on to follow the adventures of Tom's children, in particular his stepson Jack, as the task of completing the project falls to them. Above all, an old crime and a vile curse run their course across the passage of many years.
Follett's ambition is admirable in this book. A substantial cast of characters is explored and develops over the course of a thousand pages and many years of storylines. Whilst the idea of building a cathedral may seem a bit dry for the subject of a novel, Follett wraps so many duels, battles and murders around the event, not to mention a colossal amount of political intrigue, that the novel comes across as more of a melodrama, a feeling increased by William Hamleigh's rather cartoonish villainy. There's nothing wrong with a melodrama and The Pillars of the Earth is an enjoyable example of the subgenre, but this means the book lacks subtlety. Working out the black hats from the white hats isn't hard, although Follett does throw an interesting curveball towards the end of the book when a couple of characters suffer role reversals that are nevertheless convincing.
The detail of 12th Century life is very convincing, and anyone who's pondered how churches managed to fund themselves at a time of relative poverty will find their questions soon answered by this book. That said, Follett never really nails the alieness of medieval people. These people did not really think like us and their differing conceptions of the value of life and death are not explored at all. The ease with which a key female character becomes a prominent businesswoman is a clear example of how this book essentially features 20th Century characters translated to the 12th with some lip service to the laws and mores of the time. There is also a lot of sex - both consensual and rape - in the novel, a lot of which feels pretty gratuitous with no real story value.
The Pillars of the Earth (***½) is an ambitious and impressive work that reaches for true greatness but is let down by cartoon bad guys and a lack of character depth. As a melodrama it works well and it's certainly page-turningly compulsive at times (its extreme length isn't one of its problems), but there's a feeling of there being a lot more that could have been done with the story that Follett fails to achieve. The book is published by Pan Macmillan in the UK and by NAL in the USA.