September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

by Ken Follett

Three pages from the end of this novel, one of its main characters, Jack Jackson, reflects about his long-lost father and his youth in the forest and his development into the 12th-century equivalent of an architect: “The events were all too far in the past to make him weep. So much had happened since then, and most of it had been good.” Okay, it was pretty far in the past-after all, this is page 973 of a 975-page novel, so even page 800 was pretty far in the past for everyone except an Olympic-caliber speed reader. But a long civil war, multiple rapes and pillages, stabbings, assassination, ruthless politico-religious chicanery, mutilation, disease, despair, famine, greed, theft, deceit, the watering down of beer—you call this “good,” Jack?

Such bizarre lags of attention by Follett mar this often admirable attempt to take a break from the contemporary spy thrillers—Eye of the Needle, The Key to Rebecca—that have made him a success. Revolving around the disaster-fraught construction of a modern cathedral in an English village, the story runs from 1123 to 1174. It includes cameo appearances by real-life folk King Henry II and Thomas Becket, who shows up only long enough to get the top of his head chopped off.

Mostly, though, The Pillars of the Earth is concerned with a small core of fictional characters. At the center is Philip—a devout, resourceful, upwardly mobile and totally sincere monk. Tom Builder is the mason who becomes Philip’s cathedral architect; Ellen is the gorgeous—and indomitable—woman of the woods who is Jack’s mother and becomes Tom’s wife after his first wife dies giving birth. Aliena is the lovely—and indomitable—teenage noblegirl who loses her standing, regains it, loses it again and so on. William Hamleigh is a ruthless brute of a minor league nobleman who, while doing much of the raping and pillaging, spends the whole novel lusting after Aliena. Waleran Bigod is the ambitious bishop who has a run-in with Philip every other page or so. And then there is Richard, Aliena’s brother, whose right earlobe is lopped off by a thug early on—a detail that Follett forgets, as evidenced by the fact that Richard is later described as having lost his left earlobe. Follett is sometimes guilty of anachronistic language: “If he messed up this part, the whole attack would be ruined”; “This isn’t morality, it’s hairsplitting”; “Prior Philip told her to snap out of it.” He also uses lots of architectural terms. It would have been helpful if there were a diagram somewhere showing what a transept, nave, clerestory, chancel and the like are.

And toward the end, Follett starts throwing in frequent recaps of the story’s highlights, as if he thought the book needed a little padding. The characters are more than superficial yet rarely more than skin-deep. Most of the time, though, Follett describes the goings-on in lively fashion, with only rare lags in pace. Very few of those 975 pages go by without at least one crisis, so the book keeps dragging you along. Although this is hardly a book you can’t put down—most people will have to put it down 80 or 90 times—it is a reasonably attention-worthy opus worth nursing through a long fall and winter. (Morrow, $22.95)

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