I’m taking a short break from reading crime fiction. One reason for this is that I haven’t seen my brother Mike in awhile, and I always rely on him to load me up with boxes of paperbacks, which he consumes like popcorn. Then I’m still working on the novel, a project that proceeds at a glacial pace despite the impetus of getting a new computer to write it on. Finally, I think it’s a good idea for any writer to stray outside the genre once in awhile.
Which is why I recently bought Ken Follett’s World Without End. Many years ago (about 17, I guess) I picked up his Pillars of the Earth expecting to be bored silly and found that I couldn’t put it down. Set in 12th-century England during the construction of the fictional Knightsbridge cathedral, it’s one of those sweeping old-school historical novels that spans decades. World Without End is the sequel. This will sound churlish, but I should mention that I discovered it quite on my own, without Oprah Winfrey’s announcement today that Pillars of the Earth is her latest book club selection. Damn it, that woman is everywhere.
Anyway, I’ve barely started this 1,000-page tome, so it’s too soon to say whether I like it or not. But I’m wondering if so much time spent with crime fiction hasn’t spoiled my appreciation for broader, more sedately-paced works. I’m used to being grabbed by the jugular in the first few sentences; here, a sort of ho-hum beginning requires a leap of faith to stick with it. Also, any novel described as “sweeping” is going to have a lot of characters, and I’m already having a problem keeping the names straight. After 40 pages, I count 18 major characters. No doubt they’ll have room to breathe in the chapters to come, but it’s getting kind of crowded here at the front entrance.
Now I’m asking myself: Did Pillars of the Earth start out this way? I’ll have to look. If so, maybe I’ve changed more than Ken Follett has. I do know that I’ve long admired him as a writer of popular fiction; his Eye of the Needle remains one of the best thrillers ever written. (The movie wasn’t bad either, inspiring a decades-long infatuation with Kate Nelligan.)