The People That Went To War

Review of Fall Of Giants – Ken Follett; Pan Macmillan October 2010; Rs 350; pp 851

– Shana Susan Ninan

Most of us flew through our ninth standard in school without actually taking in the severity of the First World War. It was not just the first largest war that involved numerous nations – directly and indirectly – it included a gamut of people’s lives, emotions, loves and hatred. It carried with it the obstinacy of the old generation to declare war and the fears of the next that they might have to fight another one soon.

Master crafter Ken Follett’s Fall Of Giants is a poignant, well-narrated novel that traces the events in Europe, Russia, the US and other nations that led up to the WWI and thereafter. In the words of Ken Follett: “The people in the Fall of Giants live through the WWI, and the Russian Revolution and the aftermath in the early 1920s… It’s about individuals and their passions… It is about them living through great historic events.”

It is the story of five families – two English, a German, an American and a Russian. Coal mine worker turned sergeant and hero Billy Williams and his suffragette sister Ethel creates quite a ruckus in British society with their political and social concerns. Lord Fitzherbert, stubborn, pompously aristocratic and high-handed as ever, leads a section of the British army into the heart of the action. His sister and staunch suffragette and what’s-on-my-mind talker, Lady Maud is a woman who defies all social norms for the sake of her beliefs. She falls in love with dashing German spy, Walter von Ulrich, who later joins the war and comes back alive. Gus Dewar, coming from an ‘old money family’ in Buffalo works for President Woodrow Wilson and joins the war when America becomes a part of it. Brothers Lev and Grigori Peshkov’s lives take a turn in Russia, and a big one at that, to gift them the destinies that best suited them.

The Suffragettes and the struggle to approve votes for women are woven into the plot neatly. The hopes of women and families, especially when their boys and men were fighting elsewhere are on a pedestal here. They are led by two of the strongest characters in the novel: Maud and Ethel.

At the start of the war, the people who initiated it thought it’d end in a few weeks. But as we all know, it was at least five years before the Armistice was reached. And, it took another 10 years before all the countries involved got back on track. Follett skillfully circles the world and takes the reader to many backgrounds – beginning with the dark and damp coal mines of Aberowen, the sprawling premises of the aristocratic English, the slums of St Petersburg, battlefields in Germany and the business districts in Buffalo, US.

Follett achieves success in historical research and accuracy through two main ways: One, he puts a fictional character in a real situation – war scene, parliament, overseas, etc. – and shows us the goings-on with a keen observation. Two, he hired not less than eight history professors to read and edit his typescript!

Follett is a Wordsmith – the narrative, the characters and, certainly, the historical facts are smoothed like the chisel in a carpenter’s hands. He carves out the functional details and brings them to the fore, and suggests the minor ones to a point where he gives his readers the credit of intelligence. The book is huge – 851 pages – but at no point do you feel let down or cumbersome to read

Something that I really admire in this novel is that people who are diametrically opposite each other in principle do come together amiably – whether at an evening party, on the battle field, or even getting married – and do not actually tear each others’ heads off. Even when there’s a war raging between their countries, men and women still go on to live near-normal lives without unnecessarily attacking their friends on the other side.

This novel is the first in the Century Trilogy. The subsequent books will be on the WWII and the Cold War, narrated through the lives of the characters’ children. A person who lives in the present, I’m suddenly waiting for the year 2012!

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Rating: 9.0/10 (2 votes cast)
The People That Went To War, 9.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 7th, 2010 at 10:13 am and is filed under Historical Fiction, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.


  1. November 7th, 2010 | Susan says:

    Great review Shana!

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