'Edge of Eternity' Keeps the Pages Turning through the End of the 20th Century

By Spanberg, Erik | The Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Edge of Eternity' Keeps the Pages Turning through the End of the 20th Century


Spanberg, Erik, The Christian Science Monitor


Ken Follett believes in the power of a good story. And he harbors no doubt about attention spans in an era when people avert their eyes to smartphone screens approximately every 1.2 seconds.

Twitter and Facebook should be no match for Edge of Eternity, Follett's 1,100-page concluding novel in his "Century" trilogy. The century in question, for the uninitiated, is the 20th. Since 2010, Follett, who made his bestselling name as a thriller writer, has now published three epic historical novels, weaving world wars, political assassinations, and social movements through stories involving a cast anchored by five fictional families and their descendants: American, Russian, Welsh, German, and British.

The series starts with "Fall of Giants," in which the various families and characters are swept from obscurity to the front lines of history. Best of all, Follett manages to keep the story plausible whether he is describing the Russian Revolution or a boy working in a coal mine in Wales. "Winter of the World," published two years later, picks up the story and characters while delving into World War II and the start of the Cold War.

The final book, published this month, begins with the Freedom Rides in the American South and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. More than a thousand pages later, the first African-American president, Barack Obama, takes office.

Follett once again benefits from detailed research. For this book, he rode a bus from Washington to Atlanta, seeing some of the same sights encountered by the college students and other protesters who flocked from the North to stand alongside the African-Americans who risked their lives in a campaign to nudge the promise of "all men are created equal" closer to reality.

His fictional cast includes George Jakes, a young African- American man working in Robert Kennedy's Justice Department. George is the illegitimate son of a white US senator and his African- American mistress and becomes a Freedom Rider before going to work in Washington. Among his peers: a young woman, also an African- American, who works in the White House press office and who carries on an affair with President John Kennedy. (Follett's research included discussing JFK's infidelities with Mimi Alford, whose 2011 memoir described her days as a White House intern, where she became one of many presidential mistresses.)

Follett being Follett, the assassination of JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the Civil Rights movement, are only the start of his novel. Watergate, rock and roll, Reagan and Beirut, glasnost, and the fall of the Berlin Wall all figure into "Edge of Eternity." Somehow, Follett largely avoids the where's-Waldo clumsiness historical novels can suffer from. …

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