ANY fat historical novel that deals with the building of a cathedral is bound to invite comparison with Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth. I am pleased to be able to tell you that this one is very much better.
It is 1229, and, in the fictional Alsatian city of Hagenburg, the bishop’s dream building is rising slowly, dominating the town centre and sucking in money in an endless stream. A shepherd boy, Rettich, in town to pay his taxes, takes the unheard-of step of borrowing the price of his family’s freedom from the Jews, and becomes an apprentice stonemason, bewitched by the cathedral’s dreamy architect and his designs. His brother, Emmerich, apprenticed to a Jewish firm, uses his talent for finance to enrich himself and help to shape the city’s destiny.
Over the course of the next 50 years, a rich variety of personalities — heretics, Jews, indigent noblemen, bandits — insistently demand our attention. Ben Hopkins darts between characters and time-frames, keeping our interest by raising questions that are answered later. Some characters stand out, allowed their own voices in the largely third-person narrative: the bishop’s cynical treasurer, Eugenius von Zabern, who hates his work but does it superlatively well; the baron who wants to cheat his wife’s family by legitimising his son; and the feisty country girl, Grete, who takes over her dead husband’s business and lives to see her family ennobled.
It’s a medieval Wheel of Fortune, and some prosper and some die, totally unexpectedly. Great events in the outside world are seen through the filter of how they affect the city and its inhabitants. Greasing Fortune’s wheel, as ever, is money. Everything has a price: the Pope’s favour, a peasant girl’s golden hair, even the yellow badges sewn on to the clothes of repentant heretics.
It could be read as an economics lesson, as Hopkins examines how the mercantile class rose at the expense of the nobility. It’s better, however, just to regard it as an intelligent and rattlingly good read.
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
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