Ken Follett’s latest epic is a cautionary tale of global catastrophe

Bill Sheehan

THE WASHINGTON POST – It has been more than 40 years since Ken Follett first topped bestseller lists with his classic World War II thriller, Eye of the Needle. He followed that success with crisp international thrillers including Triple and The Man from St Petersburg, books that placed him in the company of such contemporaries as Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum.

In the decades since, Follett has confounded early expectations, taking his fiction in surprising new directions. In his latest novel, the urgent and fiercely compelling Never, he has done so again.

Follett began reinventing himself with 1989’s The Pillars of the Earth.

A thousand-page epic centred on the building of a cathedral in medieval England, the book was a commercial and artistic gamble that paid off for Follett in a number of ways. It remains his most popular title, and it served as a template for much of Follett’s subsequent fiction: vast, thoroughly researched novels filled with huge casts of characters and multiple interconnected story lines. In his latest, the two main strains of Follett’s career come together.

Never is both an up-to-the-minute thriller that explores the tensions and conflicts of the modern world and a sprawling, globe-spanning saga that contains multitudes.

The central theme of Never is the never-ending possibility of nuclear catastrophe. In a brief preface, Follett noted that the inspiration for Never came from his research into the origins of World War I for Fall of Giants, the first volume of his Century Trilogy. That devastating conflict was, in Follett’s view, “a war that nobody wanted”.

Yet it happened, anyway, the result of a complex series of treaties, international alliances and shortsighted decisions that would reshape the world and alter the nature of modern warfare.

In Never, Follett posits a similar scenario, one made infinitely more dangerous by the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons. The resulting portrait of a world stumbling toward the unthinkable is credibly detailed and alarmingly plausible.

The story begins in the Sahara Desert, thousands of miles from what will become the centre of an emerging nuclear confrontation.

Other narrative threads, each of which contains enough drama to fuel a conventional-length novel, take place in the corridors of power in China and the United States (US). The Saharan section features a young Lebanese American CIA agent, Abdul John Haddad, who is on the trail of a cocaine shipment that will be used to fund a local arm of the Islamic State. He will be joined by a young widow desperate to exchange her poverty in Africa for the dream of a new life in Europe. Their journey across the desert through increasingly hazardous conditions is one of the dramatic high points of the novel.

Events in Africa take on international significance when an incident at the border of Chad and Sudan results in the shooting death of an American soldier. When investigators learn that the rifle involved was supplied by North Korea, major players from China and the US step in, setting the stage for escalating actions and reactions.

In the US, President Pauline Green reacts by tightening existing economic sanctions against North Korea, a move regarded as “proportionate” to the offence. But that proportionate response only exacerbates an already desperate economic situation, which in turn exacerbates the US’ fraught relationship with North Korea and its principal ally, China. From this point on, things will deteriorate with astonishing speed, despite strenuous efforts by peacemakers in China and the US.

Shots are fired. An oil exploration vessel carrying American scientists is sunk. Hard-liners on both sides push for increasingly violent responses, and the prospect of a peaceful resolution begins to fade.

Matters take an even darker turn when rebel forces in North Korea revolt against Supreme Leader Kang U-jung, taking control of all nuclear bases in the country and bringing the prospect of an actual nuclear exchange that much closer to reality.

Just as they did in the days and months preceding the First World War, a variety of circumstances come together to create the conditions for a global catastrophe. Never is a cautionary tale about the power of unintended consequences, and it is disturbing and illuminating in equal measure. Follett has always been an accomplished storyteller, but his latest reflects a sense of urgency that lifts it well above typical apocalyptic thrillers. Never is first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. It deserves the popular success it will almost certainly achieve.