Edge of Eternity, the barnstorming, densely populated epic that concludes Ken Follett’s ‘Century’ trilogy, gives no quarter in interpreting the events of the Cold War through a fictional lens. Over 1,000 exhaustive – at times exhausting – pages, Follett roams between the USSR, East and West Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, his mighty cast of characters including notables (Gorbachev, Kennedy, King), the imagined functionaries at their sides and the everyday folk caught in the iron grip of Communism and straining against it.
I doubt Follett has ever been accused of a lack of ambition, and in taking on the Cold War and the nuclear stand-off that took place between the construction of the Berlin wall and its fall nearly three decades later, he points his narrative lens at those in power and their citizens in divided Germany, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, all of them living in the shadow of an impending superpower holocaust.
The battlegrounds are disparate but the yearning is common, for civil rights, free speech, democracy. Progressive Americans seek universal voting rights and the destruction of institutional racism; their British counterparts want homosexual law reform. Free love is equal parts seductive and troublesome, especially for a young White House aide who is drawn into the hyper-amorous orbit of President Kennedy.
Those on the European continent, Follett shows, daren’t dream of such revolutionary acts. Having barely survived the mass rape inflicted on the women and female children of Berlin in the latter days of World War II, the people of East Germany swiftly become subjugated to the monstrous Stasi machine. One character unwittingly marries an agent of the secret police. Another falls pregnant and must remain behind the Iron Curtain while her baby’s father tunnels to freedom and the rock-and-roll life in the UK.
Regardless of their circumstances, all are subject to the prosaic stuff of life (inconvenient pregnancy, familial schism, infidelity (one character learns that his wife is cheating on him from his boss, Khrushchev, which surely defines the awkward work story)), and that these upheavals occur against the backdrop of some of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century neither dulls nor heightens emotional pain. Hurt is hurt, and it is here that Follett’s writing is most affecting.
The most powerful scenes are those rooted in fact: Birmingham police turning supercharged fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protestors and child bystanders; statesmen entrenched in the miserable nadir of the Cuban missile crisis; the unceremonious ousting of Khrushchev; the wretchedness of the Stasi ideology and conduct.
Though Follett offers a ringside seat to the momentous as experienced through the eyes of those at the right hand of statesmen or on the wrong side of the wall, his plethora of characters is overwhelmed by the scale of the story. There are at least eight families and a couple of dozen other invented people besides the real historical figures, and unlike contemporaries such as Diana Gabaldon, who uses actual events to explore the inner lives of her men and women, Follett – for all the exhaustive detail he musters – crafts characters that are mostly two-dimensional. Their needs, desires and fears are canvassed, but as historical fiction goes, it is less John dos Passos, more Philippa Gregory.
Still, Follett fans will be sated and newcomers with a penchant for melodrama with a factual tinge will find much to savour.