My choice of title has nothing to do with the Robert Wise classic sci-fi film of 1951, or indeed the inferior remake of 2008. Instead, it refers to the day – 22nd November 1963 – when the world was rocked with the news that US President John F Kennedy was dead. The man on whom so many hopes were pinned had been gunned down as he drove through the city of Dallas on his way to a civic lunch.
I have been looking forward to this, the third novel in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy ever since I finished Winter of the World, the second book. It did not disappoint. Once again, Follett paints on a world canvas, with suspense from the off. He maintains the momentum thereafter as he switches continents and points of view with intoxicating rapidity.
The story begins in East Berlin in 1961 and spans three decades of turbulent world history. Edge of Eternity has a different feel from the previous two novels, less historical and more personal. It reminds me of the excitement, the danger – and the fear – of growing up during those years of tension and cold war. The Berlin Wall, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Rock and Roll and the Beatles, Vietnam, Watergate and much much more – those are the background against which Follett sets his continuing family saga of Britons, Germans, Americans and Russians caught up in the hurricane of political and social change.
“The East German regime had done what everyone said could not be done: they had built a wall across the middle of Berlin. And Rebecca was on the wrong side.”
Rebecca Hoffman is a talented teacher in East Berlin who falls foul of the Stasi. Sacked and with no prospects, she plans her escape to the West. Her teenage brother Walli, whose only ambition is to play rock music, has the same idea, and neither manages to cross the wall without cost.
In London, Dave Williams, son of a Labour MP and grandson of a newly-created Baroness, suffers from what we would recognise today as dyslexia. Dave can’t pass academic examinations but he is a talented guitarist and finds work in a back street London club. He and Walli, after many trials, eventually meet up and go on to be successful musicians.
The Moscow twins Dimka and Tania Dvorkin are devoted to one another but have different political aspirations. Dimka is an aide to Kruschev and believes communism can be reformed and made to work; Tania is a liberal who works for the TASS news agency. She is sent to Cuba to cover the missile crisis.
“George’s mind refused to accept it. Even in Alabama, men would not bomb a Sunday School. ‘They killed four girls,’ Jacky said.”
George Jakes is an aide to Bobby Kennedy and devoted to civil rights legislation. As a black man – though with a white father – he experiences first hand the despicable acts of segregation, the riots and the violent murder by the Ku Klux Klan in the South. George is torn between two women, Verena, who works for Martin Luther King, and Maria, who is on the staff at the White House.
Each of these characters, and others – the cast is enormous – is tied to the past by marriage or literary manipulation. As third generation of the families who first appeared in Fall of Giants, they are destined to meet, find love or sex, and part again – to fight for their ideals, to feel grief and disappointment and to fulfil their dreams. A few of the first generation even make brief appearance to remind us how it all started; we meet again Lady Maud, the Peshkov brothers, Fitz and Ethel.
Many reviewers feel compelled to give a detailed synopsis of the whole plot of the book they are reviewing. With Edge of Eternity, the reader who already knows the true history of the sixties, seventies and eighties may think that superfluous. A third of the book is fact; another third is an intuitive but well-researched peek into the private lives of the most influential people of last century. The rest is – of course – fiction. Nevertheless, to someone who lived through those times, even that brings its own memories, nostalgia, and emotions. Detailed plot-spoilers have no place in this review.
“Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2.30 am yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee” [Washington Post, 18 June 1972]
The only small minus for me is that Ken Follett, a Brit [he is a Welshman], did not devote more space to our part in the momentous events, especially in the second half of the book. Perhaps as a supporter of the Labour Party, and the husband of a former Labour MP, he does not consider the contribution of the Thatcher years to world history as very important! Edge of Eternity is unashamedly left-wing, though that is a term with very different meanings on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
But his negligence in that respect does not really detract from the novel. Fans should simply pick up the book (all 1000 pages of it) and enjoy Follett’s journey into the recent past, his fast-moving style, page-turning storyline and imaginative recreation of the lives of the real men and women who made twentieth century history. But if you are new to his work, I can think of no good reason not to start with Edge of Eternity; you can always go back to the others later.
The book ends when the Wall comes down, but you’ll have to read it to find out who is there to see it happen!