Lose Face or Die?

Never

by Ken Follett

A Review

What is the probability of nuclear war in the next five years – ten years – your lifetime? And what will be the consequences – hundreds of millions dead, cripples or poisoned – half of the habitable earth a wasteland?

These are questions posed by Follett’s brilliant, apocalyptic and only too realistic new thriller, Never, published last year. Of course, the people who die will not be the politicians who spew propaganda at one another, nor the generals who initiate the holocaust. They will be safe in the underground bunkers they have built for themselves and their kind. Safe …. comfortable …. happy? I leave you to judge.

The job of the fiction writer is to take the reader on an imaginary excursion into a made-up world, one which is close enough to our own to convince us it is real. To introduce us to invented but believable characters who will be our companions on the journey. Sometimes we may suspend disbelief for long enough to wonder. At the end, however, we know it has all been make believe. We survive.

Ken Follett is an author who convinces us every time. Yet in none of his twenty-odd novels to date has he managed to convince us with such chilling effect. Never is something which should – must – never happen in the real world.

The plot of Never conceives of a world poised on the brink of destruction. China, in a would be alliance with North Korea, faces the United States, already in an alliance with the South. Each threatens the other with a move which will demand retaliation. What the great powers forget is that sometimes (often?) it is the little people who move the pieces on the chessboard. At the head of China is Chen Haoran, a president squeezed between the reformers on one side and the military hawks on the other; in America, Pauline Green is a president challenged by a hawkish right-winger while in her personal life she must contend with an unfaithful husband and a rebellious teenage daughter.

‘DEFCON 1- NUCLEAR WAR IS IMMINENT OR HAS BEGUN’

Within this international scenario are the supporting actors, each with their own excellent romantic subplot: Chang Kai, the Chinese spymaster and his pro-western actress wife, disapproved of by the old guard;  Abdul Haddad, a CIA operative fighting a battle against the drug trade in Chad and Libya. Abdul is tasked with trailing a consignment of cocaine destined for Europe. Proceeds from drug sale are being used to finance jihadis in the Sahara. A young Chadian mother, Kiah, who wants to make a better life for herself in France is caught up innocently in the conspiracy. She and Abdul form a relationship.

Also working in Chad are Tamara Levit, Abdul’s “controller” and Tab Sadoul, an EU attache. They too provide a love interest.

The novel is too complex, too long (at over 800 pages) and has too many characters – many with instantly forgettable names – to be summarised in a few lines. Suffice to say that the subplots are resolved, but things start to go wrong internationally when a rebel group in North Korea threatens the Supreme Leader.

Ken Follett has over recent years proved himself a master of historical fiction. However, he was always good with thrillers, and Never – though scary – is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.

*****

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