Book Review: The Evening and the Morning, by Ken Follett
In The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett shows that he’s still a master at giving the reader the same thing, but different.
The book is the fourth entry in his Kingsbridge series, which began with The Pillars of the Earth. I haven’t read the third installment, A Column of Fire, but I assume it follows the same pattern: in pre-industrial England, characters from different classes—clergy, nobles, and peasants—go about their daily lives in ways that bring them into union and conflict. In the process, we get regular injections of sex, violence, and history.
(My review of the second book, World Without End, included this summary: “in terms of archetypes, there’s a fair bit of overlap with the first book—the leads include a clever builder, a brutish fighter, and an enterprising woman who chafes against conventional wisdom. But over the course of [many years], we see the protagonists overcome fresh obstacles and setbacks … Decisions echo down through the years. Rivalries linger. Love blooms and withers and blooms again.” The description works just as well here.)
The Evening and the Morning has a twist, though: the story is a prequel, set in the Dark Ages, more than a hundred years before the events of The Pillars of the Earth.
I liked this approach because Follett is writing first and foremost about a place—and not a continuing set of characters. Or to put it another way, the central character of the Kingsbridge series is Kingsbridge, Follett’s fictional English town. In the (chronologically) later books, we see Kingsbridge develop and expand. But in The Evening in the Morning, we see how Kingsbridge becomes Kingsbridge.
Its beginnings are humble. The hamlet (not yet a town) has no bridge and a less illustrious name. The entrance to the church is crumbling; the entire structure is gradually sliding down a hill. The leadership is corrupt. The island in the river is full of lepers.
But by the end of the novel, Kingsbridge comes into its own, changing more than any of the people who shaped it. (The human characters in this series are rarely dynamic; for the most part, they’re either all good or all bad, with little complexity.) The transformation is fun to watch.
As usual, I enjoyed the historical details—although, as Follet notes in the afterword, “The Dark Age left few traces. Not much was written down, there were few pictures, and nearly all buildings were made of wood that rotted away a thousand years ago or more. This leaves room for guesswork and disagreement, more so than with the preceding period of the Roman Empire or the subsequent Middle Ages.”
Even so, The Evening in the Morning seems like it’s on solid ground when it illustrates how hard women had it. Most were exploited by men; many died in childbirth; few lived to old age. The book also explores an early version of slavery. According to Follett, the majority of slaves in England during this era were Britons, people pressed into bondage “from the wild western fringes of civilization, Wales and Cornwall and Ireland.” Others voluntarily gave up their freedom to escape starvation. Whatever their origin, young slaves were often prostituted, and the punishment for abusing them was mild. Another wrinkle is that the story runs through a time when the primary adversary of the English wasn’t the French, but the Vikings. Norse raids were frequent and devastating, and they took their share of captives.
None of this alters the overall plot much. The good guys still find happiness in the end; the bad guys still get their comeuppance. You wouldn’t be far off if you said The Evening in the Morning is essentially The Pillars of the Earth with a different cover. It’s a fair critique.
And my reply would be, “So what? I zipped through it anyway—all nine hundred pages.” Not every author consistently fosters that type of momentum. But Follett’s formula works, even when you recognize it.
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