- Winter of the World by Ken Follett was published in September 2012
- Publisher: Dutton
- 960 pages
In the opening pages of Winter of the World, Lloyd happens to sneak into a private meeting of Nazis, including Hitler and Hermann Goring. Follett writes, "Lloyd felt weirdly as if he were in the audience at a theater, and these powerful men were being played by actors" (31). Not only is the situation unrealistic, it is also a flimsy way for Follett to present history -- treating readers as if they are "at a theater" is an easy way to get a historical point about Hitler across rather than creating a believable story that weaves the history into the narrative.
The story, however, was not the only thing that was flimsy. Throughout the novel, the characters have what are supposed to be profound insights about things like religious tolerance or how homosexual relationships are not different than heterosexual ones. These revelations seem anachronistic and unbelievable in the way they are presented. Because the characters are so flat and shallow, they do not come to these insights through genuine struggle or story; rather, Follett throws in lines like,"Erik remembered that Jews worshipped the same God as Christians. It was easy to forget" (51), and expects that the character now can be considered complex. I remember when I took a basic level creative writing class. One of the biggest pieces of advice was, "show, don't tell." Follett does a horrible job showing readers how or why characters behave or feel certain ways. He just states the conflict and expects you to buy it.
Follett also "tells" rather than "shows" in order to move the plot forward. At one point, in reference to a Nazi villain, Follett writes, "He had been forced to submit to condescension and sarcasm. He had felt humiliated. But he would get his own back" (35). The character is a caricature. Rather than writing a complex human being, or even a villain who we come to know as a villain through action, Follett just tells us, "He feels x and so he planned to get revenge." He does this with all the characters, as when he writes, "Lloyd felt his temper beginning to simmer. He hated to be bullied" (53) or "Olga liked it when Daisy dressed to kill. Perhaps it reminded her of her youth" (84). I have not read Follett's thrillers, but this sort of writing reminded me of James Patterson's mindless suspense novels, not an historical epic.
Early on in the novel, two American children of a Russian immigrant see each other at a summer social. One is the daughter of his wife and the other is the son of his mistress. Without any impetus, these two estranged siblings strike up a conversation at the tennis social that immediately goes to the deep issues in their lives: "Daisy said: 'Well, I guess I shouldn't blame you. You didn't ask to be born.'
[Greg replies]'And I should probably forgive you for taking my father away from me three nights a week -- no matter how I cried and begged him to stay'" (88). This conversation seemed so far-fetched, it made me want to throw my book. Instead, I chose to stop taking notes on the poor writing. I decided that if you have to read 980 pages of a book to review it and you establish enough flaws to make you want to abandon the project in the first hundred pages, probably better to turn off your brain and try to enjoy the melodrama.
One more thing I have to note, though, is there is also an excessive amount of sex in the book, and not just sex, but sex presented in an unrealistic, mass market paperback sort of way. All the strong female characters are sexually permissive and view their sexuality in ways that seemed clearly written by a man.
From what I have written so far, you may be wondering why I would even give the book two stars. Despite the shallow plot and characters, though, Follett actually presents a good deal of history. It was interesting to consider the events of World War II from the perspectives of characters in Russia, the U.S., England, Wales and Germany, even if those characters were flat. I appreciated the chance to think about history more fully; however, I do not think it is worth committing yourself to 980 pages.