Archive for the ‘Ken Follett’ Category

Life is full of coincidences, seen and unseen–the person on the bus reading one of your favorite books, the grocery store encounter that reveals a work colleague as a neighbor–and then there are all the unseen webs that bind us, the great grandfathers who knew each other, ancient family connections that unite us all. We LIKE patterns, and seek them out, often bestowing a spurious meaning on meaningless coincidence–as in astrology, for instance. But even without the mystical aspect, coincidence is interesting. We take note, we smile.

It so happens that two very different books concern themselves with mining, and mining disasters. And of course, I happened to be reading them in 2010, exactly when the Chilean triumph in rescuing  trapped miners from a mining disaster was in everyone’s heart.

Nothing amazing, just a coincidence. But it amused me.

The two books are the Children’s Book, by Antonia Byatt and The Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett. They write very differently–she the conscious stylist, he the plain story teller. Both books are fictional accounts of the same time: the 1890’s and 1900s, before and during the first World War. Both refer to the horrible mining catastrophe known as firedamp, a flammable gas found in coal mines.

The Children’s Book

In The Children’s Book, Byatt uses the idea to power some extraordinary fairy tales, written by the lovely Olive Wellwood, fictional member of the real Bloomsbury group. Precious art nouveau images abound in this rather messy and over long book; which however contains many shining gems—she excels in presenting very evocative, very painterly impressions in prose. The London Review of Books gave it a long  negative review–with a lovely word for Byatt’s pet device, ekphrasis:  “The central mode of description is the ekphrasis; almost every page supports some static description of an already extant representation”. Which the reviewer despised, but which I find the soul of the novel–her strength, and it always has been so. I LIKE her vivid descriptions of paintings, costumes, pots.  But it is not enough to hold this messy bundle of plots and ideas together. As the reviewer points out, the children’s fairy tales by Olive are better–certainly more cohesive–than the actual novel itself.

Fall of Giants


Ken Follett excels in storytelling–his thrillers are world famous. He is by no means a writing stylist, but his prose is solid workmanlike stuff. He grew up in Wales, and the stories of the Welsh mines and their terrible death toll must have been part of his early life. In Fall of Giants, he tells the story of one such disaster, an explosion in a mining shaft and the subsequent coal dust fire, which killed a dozen men and wounded many more. No fairytale prince seeking his shadow in underground kingdoms here, but coal dust and grit and terrified miners, and the fervent faith which brought them through. The book follows some 5 families through the unbearably bleak years up to and during the first world war. It is well plotted, and written in clear–if inelegant–prose. He puts a face on history, and makes it immediate to us, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of that generation.

Both books are engaging in their different ways:  the brilliant jewels and fairy tales and the colliers in their grim houses clinging to the hills over the mines.


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