Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy #3) by Ken Follett

Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy #3) by Ken Follett

I have to preface everything with the following statement: I hate this book. I loathe this series.

Rarely does a novel make me wonder about the depravity of its author, but I found that I was left wondering about Follett’s feelings toward sex (or, as his poorly written trilogy makes it seem, the absolute lack of it in the real world). The Century Trilogy has left me feeling absolutely disgusted, especially after completing Edge of Eternity, by so many absurdities that range from inconsistent characterisation within a matter of pages to inaccurate and neglected historical details.

Overall, the writing in Edge of Eternity feels more like an excuse to constantly use “historically accurate language” (read: racial slurs) even when it’s not appropriate in the narration and would only fit in to make accurate dialogue. It’s as if this white man couldn’t stop himself from referring to black people in the manner of the ‘polite’ 1960s gentleman, even when his novel was published in 2014; he often uses words that, though homophobic, many readers would not recognise as being insults that explicitly refer to homosexuality because he does not make it clear that there has been a change in linguistic patterns. He’s so happy to fill his pages with irrelevant details that directly contradict his characters’ capabilities:

Rebecca did not know much about guns, but she thought it was a Walther P38.

Yet, he has no intention to explain the language of the time and the implied meaning of certain words, forgetting that they no longer retain them. He spends forever describing events that were obviously researched, and yet he can’t even take five seconds to figure out why some actions appear completely alien because he didn’t care to research hairstyles, food culture, or animals:

Larry cut into his grilled-cheese sandwich and George took a forkful of chili con carne.

On either side of the road were tall thickets of sugar cane. Turkey vultures floated above, hunting fat rats in the field.

George wrapped the washed lettuce in a towel and windmilled his arm to dry leaves. … He tipped the lettuce into a bowl.

Some of the young black men and women had grown it [their hair] into a huge fuzzy cloud that looked amazing.

If this is how you're making a salad, I'm pretty sure you're doing it wrong.

If this is how you’re making a salad, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it very, very wrong.

As in the last two books, though I sincerely hoped that he would entirely give up writing sex scenes, he fails to understand anything about cissexual women’s anatomy. Once more, he persists in writing scenes that make women’s unnamed vaginas – something that is only discussed using euphemisms for over 2000 pages of the series until he magically learns of their existence during mutual masturbation between a woman and her disabled husband – sound as if they’re similar to a coconut cream pie; I abhor the mental image of anyone burying their face into a woman’s vagina during oral sex, and I loathe the fact that the only anatomically correct word he seems to know is “penis.” He still hasn’t bothered to learn about vaginas, clitorises, or anything of the nature, unless he’s able to fit it into a failed exam to become a doctor.

These sex scenes also relate directly to the aforementioned character inconsistencies. When discussing one of the few black women in a book written during the Civil Rights Movement, he describes Maria Summers as a person who comes from a very conservative and religious family; Follett goes to great lengths to repeatedly mention that her grandfather is a preacher, attempting to poorly emphasise this fact. He also describes her relationship with a man during her time in law school:

She liked George more than any man she had met since she broke up with Frank Baker two years ago. She would have married Frank if he had asked her, but he wanted sex without marriage, a proposal she had rejected.

Even before that, Follett goes on to have two men – including George, who she’s supposed to rather like – discuss her prudishness during that same time:

It occurred to [George] that he might find out more about her from Mawhinney. “Did you date her at law school?”

“No. She only went out with colored guys, and not many of them. She was known as an iceberg.”

George did not take that remark at face value. Any girl who said no was an iceberg, to some men. “Did she have anyone special?”

“There was one guy she was seeing for about a year, but he dumped her because she wouldn’t put out.”

The two men later go up to Maria in a restaurant, where Mawhinney tells her how they  just were discussing her status as an iceberg at law school. George finally says something about how crass this statement is only after she’s been embarrassed by it, even though Follett could’ve written a far better response to this man’s intrusive nature about a woman’s sexuality (particularly the sexuality of a black woman) the moment that he had this jerk say anything.

But Maria changes suddenly when she meets President Kennedy! All of a sudden, she’s invited to his private quarters, set on a bed, and she’s more than willing to open her legs for this ‘powerful’ man. She’s done a complete 180 regarding her views about sex before marriage all because the president wants to sleep with her, and she’s had no significant character changes other than being introduced to JFK. There’s nothing that indicated her change in perspective; she’s simply gone from being frigid to being reliant on a relationship with a married man, which is frequently described in excruciatingly problematic statements that only show how incapable Follett is at understanding anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white male. One the statements that infuriates me the most, leaving aside the constant stereotyping about how Maria hates her supposedly fat ass and is frequently concerned with nothing other than her hair, is that if she were to lose the relationship with JFK, she would die. That is said more than once, despite her earlier characterisation and the knowledge that she’s sleeping with a married man.

The black women in this novel fit a lot of tropes: they’re hypersexualised within an inch of their life (going as far as having Verena directly telling George that she ‘sleeps around’ and ‘is a bad girl’, which makes him ‘too good for her’), they’re not too black, and most of them are rated on the Starbucks Skin Scale. Even George’s mother, who constantly only tells him to stay with Bobby Kennedy because he’s a black face, doesn’t seem to have much understanding of the struggles she’s had to endure for being both black and female. He also has Maria compare women to slaves, which is hyper-problematic for so many reasons. It’s weird because he’s turning black women into John Lennon and Yoko Ono, even though it would be highly uncharacteristic; according to Follett, black women swallow the most white feminism of any group.

Continuing with problematic scenes related to sex, there is a point where Evie, a 15-year old girl, suggests that her Ophelia should be nude in ‘the mad scene’ of Hamlet. This becomes unamusing once you read farther and discover two distinct passages:

The controversy about Evie’s mad scene went all around the school in a flash. The drama teacher, Jeremy Faulkner, a beardie in a striped college scarf, actually approved of the idea. However, the head teacher was not so foolish, and he stamped on it decisively.

Jeremy Faulkner appeared in his trademark college scarf. He was the only teacher who allowed pupils to call him by his first name. “That was fabulous!” he raved. “A peak moment!” His eyes were bright with excitement. The thought occurred to Cameron that Jeremy, too, was in love with Evie.

Excuse me, what? No, this is not something you write about without writing something that explains how paedophilia is wrong and why older men shouldn’t take advantage of young girls. This is a failure to point out anything that negates these terrible scenes, and this happens so often in Follett’s writing. He wrongfully utilises genuine social issues in order to write rubbish, attempting to create something of shock value without actually creating social commentary. Without evena hint of irony, Follett included a character who sounds like every white male libertarian I’ve ever met (‘can’t date her, she’s a social justice warrior’):

Evie no longer had a schoolgirl crush on Jasper. He was relieved. She was sixteen now, and beautiful in a pale, ethereal way; but she was too solemn and intense for his taste. Anyone who dated her would have to share her passionate commitment to a wide range of campaigns against cruelty and injustice, from apartheid in South Africa to experiments on animals. Jasper had no commitment to anything, and anyway he preferred girls like the impish Beep Dewar, who even at the age of thirteen had put her tongue in his mouth and rubbed herself against his erection.

One also should note that Beep (a horrible nickname) was thirteen, but Jasper was eighteen and in university. Again, we’re having some really questionable nonsense being written by Follett, who doesn’t seem to want to discuss how these are issues at all. This sort of writing is further problematic when Dave, who is somewhere between 16- and 17-years old, ends up screwing around with a 30-year old veteran singer during a TV show performance; there is no commentary about how this is a problem, even though this nauseating trope continues to exist in our media and perpetuate the myth that older women taking advantage of young boys is positive rather than seeing it for the abuse that it actually is.

The only foreshadowing he seems to do is related to who has sex with whom, and any time a man and woman are alone – regardless of their relationship status or former characterisation – they’re having obligatory sex. His other aspects of foreshadowing exist in his ability to use tropes, including one of many infertility tropes that result in an unplanned pregnancy, which is something that the mother had done purely for her own ambitions. He pushes her farther by having her sleep around with men more powerful than her husband just for a summer house.

He has men trying to dictate the relationships of women. At one point, Dimka seems to think he can decide for either Nina or Natalya what their relationship status will be with him, forgetting that he has no say in their decisions. Though he does write that Dimka believes he had “deluded himself into thinking the choice was his,” Follett seems to forget that he should discuss how that is a commonly held belief, even today. I mean, women have been and are still being murdered for the sake of rejecting a man, and Follett seems to have forgotten that completely. This is more than simple delusion; it is part of the patriarchal culture we still endure.

Overall, the entire series feels ridiciulously verbose, as if Follett was being paid per word. Rather than write in a concise fashion, he’s frequently over-writing passages to the point of being annoying. Rather than use the more common parlance of acronyms, he consistently writes about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People even after telling the audience they’re also known as the NAACP; he also does the same for the most well-known American hate group, the KKK. Even more frustratingly, he often does it within mere pages of each other:

He tried to talk to Cameron, who was two years older than Beep and already studying at the University of California at Berkeley, just outside of San Francisco. (p. 667)

Both Cameron and Beep Dewar were students at Berkeley, the San Francisco branch of the University of California. (p. 691)

It’s exhausting and makes his novels unnecessarily lengthy. He also dedicates far too many lines to attempting to say that a character is dyslexic while also proving that he did no research into any form of dyslexia other than the mainstream “switches the letters b and d” and “is unintelligent” or “academically incapable.” Being a dyslexic person, I can tell you that there are other ways that it presents.

The only praise I can offer for this novel – rather, for this entire trilogy – is that in the form of a quote from my friend when we were discussing it: “It is a book. It is made out of paper. It could be an effective murder weapon if thrown.” It’s also a wonderful tool for finding bigots, as it seems the only negative reviews for it anywhere are complaints that it is “too liberal.” I’m pretty sure we’ve read very different books.

When I love books, I love them; if they’re well-written and the authors genuinely make an attempt to create worlds that are beautiful and interesting in their own way, I’ll probably enjoy it even if I have some problems with them. That was the case for the following two books.

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