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Book Review: Edge of Eternity

By (September 7, 2014) 23 Comments

Edge of Eternity (Book Three of the Century Trilogy)edge of eternity cover

by Ken Follett

Dutton, 2014

The organizing concept of Ken Follett’s sweeping “Century Trilogy” is just about the oldest gimmick in the historical fiction bag of tricks, the eyewitness-to-history trick in which the author invents a character or cast of characters who just happen to be in the room when the great and the mighty eat, fornicate, and make the decisions that change the course of nations. The appeal is fairly easy to understand: the writer gets to exercise his creative muscles by fleshing out his made-up characters, and the reader gets the real-figure walk-ons that tend to anchor the whole enterprise. It’s the broad middle range on the historical spectrum, the wide range between the one end – books with virtually no invented characters (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for instance) – and the other – books with virtually no historical characters (Gone with the Wind comes to mind), and it can be very hospitable.

It worked for John Jakes, for instance, in his “Kent Family Chronicles,” and it worked for Herman Wouk in his Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It worked for Alexander Dumas, and it worked for Sir Walter Scott, and it worked for Tolstoy. And it’s certainly worked for Ken Follett, especially in the course of the three immense volumes of this “Century” trilogy, which follows a handful of families as their lives intertwine with the signal events and the prominent actors of the 20th century. In the third and final volume, Edge of Eternity, the second half of the century parades by in scene after scene in a stately progress toward signpost moments all Follett’s readers will know a thousand pages ahead of time (the fall of the Berlin Wall front and center, obviously). We follow an ever-increasing cast of Dewars in the United States, Leckwith-Williams in England, and Francks in Germany as they meet, work for, resist, and endlessly discuss the full roster of American presidents and Soviet premieres, and we take in the struggles of black characters like George Jakes and Maria Summers, whose work at the White House puts them at the heart of the civil rights movement – considerably closer to the heart, in fact, than those feckless Kennedy brothers:

“So you’re telling me Bobby Kennedy is a civil rights supporter?”

“Hell, no. A year ago the issue wasn’t even on his agenda. But Bobby and the president hated those photographs of white mob violence in the South. They made the Kennedys look bad on the front pages of the newspapers all over the world.”

“And global politics is what they really care about.”

“Exactly.”

Maria Summers, in fact, quickly emerges as the most interesting invented character in the book, in part because Follett does a very energetic job conveying her open-minded enthusiasms for a better world, and in part because the ink is hardly dry on her White House application before she’s being bedded (and couched and swimming pooled) by President Kennedy (“But mostly,” she naively enthuses, “I thought: I’m alone with the president in the White House residence – me! Maria Summers!”), and she quickly becomes not just his sounding board but, to an extent perhaps only Follett won’t find funny, his patient mentor:

When Martin Luther King walked in, President Kennedy shook his hand and said: “I have a dream!”

It was meant well, Maria knew, but she felt it was ill judged. King’s dream came from the depths of vicious repression. Jack Kennedy had been born into America’s privileged elite, powerful and rich: how could he claim to have a dream of freedom and equality? Dr. King obviously felt this too, for he looked embarrassed and changed the subject. Later, in bed, the president would ask Maria where he taken a wrong step, she knew; and she would have to find a loving and reassuring way to explain it to him.

The creeping, increasingly absurdity of this approach (“I’m telling you, Jimmy Madison, what you really ought to do is propose some kind of Bill of Rights”) is its main weakness, of course; sweet, innocent Sally May ends up being the actual font of all history’s transformative decisions, providing crucial inspiration for presidents and writers and social leaders who did just fine in reality without them. But that main weakness has a big secondary weakness when books are as long and ambitious as Follett’s: the author almost invariably feels compelled to let the program trump the people. You can feel it gripping Follett tighter and tighter as his pages pile up and he feels a hurry to cram in every Sputnik, every sit-in, every famous speech, and all the landmark scandals. This is why books-in-series like these almost always become weaker as they go along – this is certainly true in the case of “The Century Trilogy,” the first volume of which, Fall of Giants, primarily concerned with telling the stories of characters Follett was creating from whole-cloth, was a much richer and more interesting reading experience than either of its successors. Winter of the World and now Edge of Eternity are far more concerned with name-checking. Historical figures crop up rapid-fire but usually stick strictly to one dimension:

President Nixon was mad as hell.

He stood behind his large two-pedestal desk in the Oval Office, framed by the gold window drapes. His back was hunched, his head down, his bushy eyebrows drawn together in a frown. His jowly face was dark, as always, with the shadow of a beard he could never quite shave off. His lower lip was thrust out in his most characteristic expression, defiance that always seemed on the point of turning into self-pity.

His voice was deep, grating, gravelly. “I don’t give a damn how it’s done,” he said. “Do whatever has to be done to stop these leaks and prevent further unauthorized disclosures.”

Edge of Eternity brings many of the trilogy’s characters down the century’s end; the concluding scene has a group of people we’ve been reading about through hundreds of pages of history to a living room where they all watch TV as Barack Obama gives his presidential victory speech. It’s a nicely-done grace note of a scene, something that will no doubt cause a flush of emotion in Follett’s oldest readers as they realize just how much history they’ve seen unfold in their lives. “The Century Trilogy” might have been a stronger creation if it had more often resisted the lure of fame’s spotlight, but it’s an immensely accomplished creation even so.