Review: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Rating: 3 out of 5.

WARNING: Here there be spoilers

When someone asks for a recommendation for an epic, sweeping multi-generational saga, The Pillars of the Earth immediately comes to mind. It’s a fantastically-researched tale of the building of a fictional Gothic cathedral in 12th century England. Which, I realize, doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s amazing what Ken Follett was able to do with this concept.

All that said, I really did enjoy The Pillars of the Earth, but I have a pretty significant problem with it that took it from being a 4.5 to 5 star book to a 3 star book, and would go even lower if I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the story so much. That problem arises in the form of gratuitous rape scenes, and this story was plagued by them. Now, I don’t think for a second that any place in the 12th century was safe for women. And I understand the reasoning for why it was included – William Hamleigh was awful, and we needed to hate him. But I’m pretty reticent about rape scenes written by male authors in particular, especially when it was so detailed, graphic, and altogether unnecessary. A simple “fade to black” or implication would have sufficed. Aliena was an amazing character, but that strength doesn’t come from us knowing how brutally she suffered at Hamleigh’s hands. It came from her integrity and her resolve.

Rape survivors are among the strongest people on the planet. But that strength doesn’t come from the assault, and I found the scene in which Hamleigh rapes Aliena to be suffocating and triggering. I understand that Follett is a thriller author (I don’t know that for myself; after Pillars I’ll probably never read another of his books), and I have the sinking suspicion that he used the excess violence against women as a plot point to ‘thrill’ readers. And that is something I cannot abide by.

I read this book six months ago and pretty much all I can remember is how much rape was included. That should say enough about it. I don’t recommend The Pillars of the Earth, especially to victims of sexual violence.

Dates read: August 11-21, 2021

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