On April 15, 2019, a fire broke out in the subroof of the storied Notre-Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris, France. Perhaps caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette, perhaps by an electrical malfunction, it burned through the ancient timber supports, tinder-dry after centuries of use. “When that burns,” writes Welsh novelist Ken Follett in his new book, Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals (Viking, Oct. 29), “the roof collapses, then the falling debris destroys the vaulted ceiling, which also falls and destroys the mighty stone pillars that are holding the whole thing up.”
Fortunately, amazingly, the pillars held up. Follett, who immediately went across the Channel to Paris, did a number of interviews on the scene. Follett, of course, knows a thing or two about how such monumental buildings are constructed, having written a bestselling three-volume series, beginning with Pillars of the Earth, about the building of an English cathedral. So when his French publisher asked him to write a short book about the fire in order to raise funds for the cathedral’s restoration, he jumped to it. “It took me a week to write,” Follett tells Kirkus Reviews from his home in Hertfordshire, England. “It was written, so to speak, in the heat of the moment.”
It was a fitting match of book and writer, for Follett has been living and breathing cathedrals for decades, well before he began writing those novels—surprising readers, it should be remembered, who had been drawn to earlier books like his bestselling debut, the World War II thriller Eye of the Needle. “In the early 1970s,” Follett explains, “I was working as a journalist in London, and I was sent to a town up north called Peterborough. I no longer remember what story I phoned in, but I had an hour before my train to London left, and so I went to have a look at the cathedral there. That sparked my imagination. I got to thinking that I wanted to know why those things are where they are and how it is that they are still standing 800 and more years later.”
The answers lay, Follett discovered, not just in the places, but also with the people who built them “for somewhat mysterious and mystical reasons,” transcendental reasons that spanned several lifetimes. “At a minimum,” he says, “it took 30 years to build a cathedral.” Notre-Dame took a century. As Follett writes, “It required hundreds of workers, and it cost a fortune. The modern equivalent would be a moon shot.”
When French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Notre-Dame would be completely restored in five years, in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, Follett expressed some skepticism—allowing, however, that “it is always unwise to underestimate the French.” In June of this year, Follett returned to Paris and was given a private tour of the damaged church, speaking at length with the architect in charge of the restoration, Philippe Villeneuve, who has been working on plans around the clock since mid-April. One problem is replacing the ancient old-growth timbers with modern trees. “It may be lightweight steel or even plastic that holds the new roof up,” says Follett. “It will be above the ceiling and not visible, so in a sense it doesn’t really matter.” Still, he notes, some of the other ideas that have been floated for the restoration are not consonant with the spirit of the medieval church—including a proposal to put a swimming pool on the new roof.
In any event, Follett says, the fire has had wide-ranging effects. “It’s safe to say, I think, that every single cathedral in Europe is now under scrutiny for fire danger. Of course, Notre-Dame had a fire suppression system, but when the alarm rang, no one knew how to respond. This means either that the system was bad or the staff was untrained.”
There have been other developments since the fire, including theories about its cause, but Follett doesn’t plan to revise the book to take them into account. “It was important to have this book done quickly,” he says. Asked whether he’ll be returning to the medieval-era historical novels of his series, he demurs: “I’m not really supposed to talk about it just now. I’m going to the Frankfurt Book Fair next week, and there we’ll reveal the new book.” Whatever that is, Follett’s long publishing record suggests that it will find plenty of interested readers. For the moment, those who hold Notre-Dame Cathedral dear in their hearts will want to read his homage to that remarkable structure.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.