History has a bad rap for being a seemingly perfunctory field of study. As a history major, I certainly have gotten my fair share of skepticism when I profess my interest in our past. But history, more than almost any other subject, carries a certain humanity with it. It is the story of us, of how we got to where we are, with all the emotions, tragedies, and strange foibles that only real people can afford.
Few books tap into this feeling better than Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity.
The third and final instalment of the renowned novelist’s Century Trilogy, Edge of Eternity follows four families from Russia, Germany, Britain, and the United States. It captures the early days of the Civil Rights movement, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and everything in between.
The plot offers little in the way of added complexities or depth because it is essentially the Cold War retold. Rather, it is the characters and the different lenses through which they view the events that offer the crux of the drama. While the interwoven family trees are cumbersome at first, Follett does a good job reintroducing the characters and keeping them isolated enough that their arcs unfold at separate, brisk paces.
Readers familiar with the series will enjoy some satisfying moments of closure from the first generation of characters, long forgotten and living out the last days of their lives. That is not to say new readers will not enjoy Edge of Eternity without having read the previous instalments; but there is simply a level of familiarity that goes with following these five families for three generations.
The book’s predecessor, Winter of the World, focused less on the history than on the love lives of the characters. While this worked well in the first instalment, Fall of Giants, for the second book, it occasionally descended the piece into the trappings of a cheap soap opera. Fortunately, it is a trapping that Edge of Eternity deftly avoids. While melodrama is still present—and those infuriated by love triangles in fiction may find themselves gnawing their teeth at times—Edge of Eternity chooses to focus on the politics of the era and the men and women that shaped it. Historical figures such as Robert Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev are deeply explored, and Follett’s painstaking attention to detail gives the read an air of engrossing realism even in its more outlandish moments.
This is not to say that the book is perfect—while it isn’t as overbearing as its predecessor, what little romantic plot points do remain are grating at times, with seemingly every main character getting a clear soulmate to play “will they, won’t they” with. Additionally, while most characters are interestingly fleshed out, antagonists appear somewhat more one-dimensional by the standards of the rest of the narrative, particularly a German Stazi officer whose main characterizing feature is ‘petty jerk.’
Despite these shortcomings, Edge of Eternity is an engrossing read. Follet’s manages to switch seamlessly from character to character, making this decades spanning story feel absolutely epic.
Edge of Eternity was released in Canada by Penguin Books on September 16, 2014.