Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

Before I discovered audio books, my reading range had shrunk to books I considered to be safe, or books I was fairly certain I would like. I don’t really have a whole lot of real reading time, so when I did get the chance to read, I wanted it to be as good as possible. Audio books have changed this. Since I have more time, I feel I can be a bit more adventurous. I’ve always sort of stayed away from the more mainstream novelists like Grisham and Baldacci because I was afraid of (in my humble opinion) mediocre thrillers eating up my time. I prefer good mysteries to a thriller any day. Besides, I’d read the Da Vinci Code and loathed it and then I proceeded to throw all of the best sellers into the same category. This is neither fair to the authors, nor to myself, since they aren’t all Dan Brown and are potentially good authors.

Thus, I decided to try an author I’d always heard of, but had never read. My choice fell to Ken Follet’s A Dangerous Fortune. The novel begins at a boarding school in England which caters to wealthy businessmen’s children. Several boys decide to defy detention and go swimming in the local quarry. They all fear the punishment of a whipping by the head master with his cane, yet decide the hot weather makes it worth the risk. Little did they know that this would be the least of their problems before the day was done. That day indirectly decided the course of their lives for many, many years to come. Even as they grow up and enter into the world of business, banking for most of them, they are tied to that day like it’s a sack of lead weighing them down and keeping them from ever coming free of the taint. It begins an entire lifetime of blackmail, oppression, indebtedness and servitude for all of them.

The novel takes place in the later half of the 19th century and revolves around the fortune of the great Pilaster Bank and the new generation of bankers in the making. This sounds rather dull and might have been had it not been for Aunt Augusta, the self-appointed matriarch of the Pilaster family. She ruthlessly rules and manipulates the family and her social circle according to her own personal goals, delighting in the downfall of anyone who gets in her way.

In many ways, this book felt like Charles Dickens meets I, Claudius. Augusta is basically a 19h century Livia and her son, Eduard, Caligula. The prose and dialogue are well written, the plot realistic and the action believable. As a result, the characters have the power to evoke strong emotions and the reader is pulled into the story. The plot is also never dull, despite the financial setting. There’s always some sort of intrigue going on that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next and how the characters are ever going to get themselves out of their problems.

This book is more than just a mere thriller. It offers up quite a few interesting subjects for thought, despotism, the unintentional destruction caused by jealousy and avarice, both the evil and the good of power, just to name a few. Follett even inserts an element of social conscious and justice of which even Dickens would have approved. You could discuss it for days if you felt so inclined.

Two thumbs up for this one.

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