Published: 2007, Macmillan, hardback, 1,111 pages
Historical, romance fiction
Setting the scene
King Edward II is dead. His son, Edward III, takes the throne to become King of England, as speculation mounts around his father’s death.
A knight flees to the town of Kingsbridge armed with a sword, a dagger and, perhaps most dangerous of all, a letter. The letter is buried, though its unspecified secret hangs over the novel.
The arrival of the knight brings together four children sworn to secrecy: Caris, Gwenda, and brothers Merthin and Ralph. Over the next three decades their diverse paths remain entwined as each fight for their desires and aspirations amidst injustice and corruption and all against a backdrop of war.
It is the mark of a great storyteller to be able to grip you through 1,111 pages of evidently well-informed, historical drama. Follett masterfully balances the grim realities of the late middle ages – namely, the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the Black Death, a plague the likes of which had never been seen before – with fictional tales of love and torment in the lives of enchantingly ordinary, believably fallible characters.
The novel convincingly depicts life at the time, from clothing to politics, to new ideas conflicting with stubborn traditions and religious opposition, and poignant scenes of despair and anarchy brought on by the the Black Death. This is a novel anyone can enjoy regardless of whether they have prior interest in the era because, despite its persuasive treatment of life at the time, the backbone of the novel is essentially the heartrending love story of Merthin and Caris.
The novel spans over three decades from 1327 to 1361 and follows several plot-lines, predominantly surrounding the lives of the four central characters: Caris, an independent woman ahead of her time; Merthin, an honest romantic and genius architect; Gwenda, a savvy, head-strong peasant and Ralph, a brute, unscrupulously climbing the ranks of nobility.
However, the novel has a whole plethora of secondary characters who are equally brilliantly rounded. From the hardworking merchants and the tavern-dwelling townspeople of Kingsbridge, to the struggling peasantry of the surrounding villages and the calculating monks of the Priory, Follett’s skilful characterisation provides the finest feature of the novel. Gwenda is a particularly endearing character, whose unfortunate circumstances leaving you longing for some change in her fortune. Other characters are so corrupt they are contemptible.
Follett’s writing style is relatively informal and easy to read and he has the art of using short sentences to create tension down to a tee. However, we are regularly presented with strikingly descriptive narrative when it comes to Merthin’s architectural commissions. This reflects Follett’s self-confessed interest in cathedrals and, whilst it is admittedly tempting to gloss over at first, you soon realise that the inclusion of such detail-heavy explanations only adds to the vivid presentation of 14th-century life that the novel upholds.
Would I recommend this book? Yes
This colossal novel deservedly earns the title of ‘epic’; despite its size, which could be seen as a negative, it doesn’t for one moment feel like an effort to reach the end and instead it is one to truly lose yourself in. This is thanks to Follett’s skilful characterisation and thrilling plot of love, hate, corruption and obsession.
World Without End is a must-read historical thriller.