The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett

As would be expected from a Ken Follett novel, The Evening and the Morning is long. It is 832 pages, weighing in at a whopping 1.042kg in hardback. While toning your forearms you can indulge this epic and turbulent story, with conventional bad guys who revel in victory after victory until the very end, when good inevitably overcomes evil.

It is the long-awaited prequel to Follett’s hugely successful The Pillars of the Earth (1989), and some fan service is overdue. At the end, it is announced that Dreng’s Ferry, a formerly bridgeless backwater, will now be renamed Kingsbridge. For any Follett aficionado, this is a moment as satisfying as finding the perfect apex stone to top off a cathedral arch.

“The stars were brilliant; the beach glowed white and, when his oars broke the surface of the water the curling foam was like the fall of her hair on her shoulders.”

The novel spans a decade (997-1007) in an English earldom, with coasts that are constantly under threat from Viking raids and with northern territory frequently invaded by the Welsh. There are also a couple of enjoyable stints in Cherbourg, where Follett once again exercises a robust knowledge of medieval politics.

Our three heroes include Edgar, a bright and quick-witted craftsman with ambitions of building immortal structures. Aldred, a monk/bookworm, who is prepared to do whatever it takes to weed out corruption in the church. Rounding the trio off is Lady Ragna, a noblewoman who made an unfortunate choice of husband but nevertheless rules her lands justly and with a gorgeous head of hair. These three talented friends withstand blow after blow, but remain resilient and patient, all while clinging onto the hope of a better future.

“She had embarked on this adventure eagerly, impatient for the pleasures of marriage with the man she loved, careless of perils. […] She had never seen him in his own place, never watched him move among his people, never heard him talk to his family, his neighbours, his subjects. She hardly knew him.”

As with any Follett book, there is also a very obvious villain. Wynstan, a malevolent bishop, might as well be rubbing his hands together and mwahahaha-ing in between his frequent brothel visits. He is perfectly awful and receives an unsurprising, but well-deserved, syphilitic end.

Although designed as a prequel, the novel stands up well on its own. A strong, if predictable, plot is interwoven with excessive descriptions of building – and there is a lot of building. Boat building, brewery building, bridge building, church building, and even more bridge building.

And agriculture is not neglected. Follett gives us ploughing, scything, threshing, sifting, and with some eel trapping thrown in for fun. All this detail is constructive, it doesn’t slow the pace or wound the narrative, but it emphasises its authenticity. There is a considerable amount of energy and charisma in this novel, making it rich and easy to devour.

Edgar battles with Vikings during a raid, stealing an axe and cleaving an enemy’s head in two. His mind is brilliant – only he could make stonemasonry sound interesting – he respects women, abhors slavery and is accepting of his friend’s homosexuality. Although at times he comes across like a fourth wave feminist, with several 21st Century sensibilities, everything Edgar puts his skilled hands to, he elevates.

Brother Aldred has a friendly magnetism and endearing fearlessness that lifts off the page. His tragedy is that he is gay and he must endure the pain of unrequited love, but it is a passion that comes second to his greatest love: books. Preferably the biblical and saintly kind.

Quite rightly, Follett should be knocked for centring yet another book around a heteronormative romance – and in this case he may even be accused of queer-bating – but through Aldred we see, at least, an effort in inclusivity. There aren’t many other queer characters from works of historical fiction set as far back as this.

“Aldred was familiar with impossible love. He almost said so, but bit his tongue. He did not want his tendresse for Edgar to become embarrassing to them both. That might end their friendship, and friendship was all he had.”

Of course Follett must remain as true as possible to how people lived in this era; but the moments of darkness in this book are almost exclusively felt by women. Rape is an everyday occurrence. Slavery enables it to happen more frequently and more brutally; Blod, a Welsh slave girl, is only a teenager and she is violently abused every waking minute. Lady Ragna, despite her noble position, is no stranger to rape either.

Perhaps Follett is demonstrating that any woman, no matter her background, would had to have to lived with rape as a part of their lives. This may have been likely, but witnessing it again and again was exhausting, even sickening. Neither women received time to examine their trauma, and this omission comes across as insensitive and incomplete.

“At the end of the evening Ragna stood on Edgar’s bridge, listening to the ever-present warble of the river, watching the red sun set downstream, remembering the day she arrived here for the first time, cold and wet and muddy and miserable, and had looked with dismay at the settlement where she had to spend the night. What a change.”

There is a lot to love in this novel, but also a lot to criticise. The detailed historical research should be acknowledged; Follett has created an impressive and enigmatic piece of writing, but its greatest fault is carelessness, not inaccuracy.

The Evening and the Morning is exactly what I thought it would be; clumsy but endearing, dramatic yet hopeful, flawed and also compelling. Anyone with an interest in historical fiction, in extensive world-building, and in stories that revolve around good and evil, will enjoy picking it up – even if their wrists ache from the effort.

The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett (Macmillan, 2020)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Time After Time by MyGel

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