Many moons ago I read Pillars of the Earth, to which this book is a prequel – I think after it was made into a TV series starring Eddie Redmayne. I really enjoyed it, and so signed up to read the first few chapters of The Evening and the Morning as part of an exclusive serialisation by the Pigeonhole book club and was delighted to find I’d been selected to read the entire novel in advance of publication.
I don’t remember very much about PotE suffice to say it was a very long book, set a very long time ago in Kingsbridge with a Cathedral, a stonemason/builder chap and several very bad/very good people. Getting to grips with TEatM it proved to be much the same themes.
To start with, it’s over 900 pages long. It’s the start of a long saga and fitting as such. There is a large and intricate cast of many, but we are most interested in Edgar and Ragnar, who, when the tome starts in the Dark Ages (997 to be exact), are living in different worlds, almost literally.
Edgar is the youngest son of a boatbuilder, who plans to run away with his married lover – then a huge scandal. A twist of bad luck puts paid to all of his dreams and plans when on the night they chose to make their escape, Vikings attack the town and kill everyone in their path – burning the village to the ground on their way out. Edgar’s first and only love is dead. So is his Father, and everything they had before has gone. It’s a theme we see more than once in this book – one day you have, and are, the next you have not and you aren’t.
Edgar, his 2 elder (and annoyingly dim) brothers, his Ma, and his dead love’s dog make their way to the run down Dreng’s ferry where and English Lord has has given them a dilapidated farm to run to raise their yearly taxes. They are widely expected to fail because the farmland is bad and boggy, being too close to the river and besides, they are boatbuilders, not farmers. But they dig in and start to make the best of it.
Ragna, our other protagonist is the determined daughter of Count Hubert, a Norman nobleman. She’s ace. She’s tough and just and cares about people. She falls in love with the dashing English Lord Wilwulf when he comes to plead with her Father to help England stave off more Viking attacks, and entrances him with her beauty, wit and intelligence. He returns to England and is she is devastated. However when his brother, Wynstan returns with an offer of marriage she can’t be peeled off the ceiling. She’s delighted, and insists she be allowed to marry her Lord, despite all of her family protestations. Eventually, a dowry is agreed and she is allowed to leave for a future she cannot wait to start. Of course, we all know you must be careful what you wish for – a sentiment for which Ragna is a cautionary tale. On her travels across a storm-blown England to be reunited with her husband-in-waiting she meets Edgar, who is eking out a living as a ferryman, and the two become friends.
The story is about the development of Dreng’s Ferry, the site of the future Kingsbridge and the characters that live there. As with any community, some are upstanding, virtuous folk; others are horrid and mean (there don’t seem to be many ‘in the middle’), and they cross each other again and again.
On the whole I enjoyed this book. Ken Follett has a wonderful descriptive voice and his characters almost jump off the page at you. I gave 4 rather than 5 stars as I felt the ‘bad’ characters were a little bit too pantomime bad – like when you get a soap-opera baddie and it starts to defy belief the stuff they get away with. Saying that, before the Internet and the digital age of media, 1000 years before in fact, people were ruled by word of mouth, and fear. Fake news was all around but if you were going to be punished, perhaps by death because you knew the guy in power was in the wrong – would you honestly have spoken up? You might have been a hero but a dead hero isn’t much use. It’s worth mentioning that there are some seriously upsetting scenes in the book too but sadly representative of the way we know women, and indeed the lower classes were treated in less enlightened times. If you’re of a sensitive nature, this might not be the book for you.
In summary, if you’re a fan of Ken Follett, you’re probably going to love this book because it’s more of the same – an entertaining and dramatic romp through time – and if you’ve read the Pillars series it’s really interesting to see the story to all of the things that came before. A lot of the Pigeonhole competition winners are die hard KF fans and it was fun to see them spotting all the likely ancestors of Pillar’s heroes, and places that would feature in the future books. Above all, Ken really knows how to set a historical scene and create characters that really make you care about their welfare or, alternatively, wish bad things upon them.