Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Sarum by Edward Rutherford

Edward Rutherford began his novel writing career with this epic 900 page tome that spans ten thousand years in the history of the famous Salisbury plain, most notably the home of Stonehenge, and more recently (that is, circa 1258 A.D.) the towering Anglican cathedral of Saint Mary (commonly known as Salisbury Cathedral), which hosts the world's oldest working clock, one of only four existing copies of the Magna Carta, and the U.K.'s tallest spire (at 404 feet).

Born in Salisbury himself (the modern equivalent of the old word Sarum), Rutherford has an obvious love and affinity for the region which shows in this massive work. I had read this once before, back in 1987 when it first appeared, and recalled its highs and lows only vaguely when I took it up again last month.

Following in the footsteps of James Michener, Rutherford's plan is epic in scope: to tell the history of a single region from its earliest days to the present. He does this in two ways, using two methods which would provide the template for his future work. First, he creates a half dozen fictional families who he then follows throughout the ages as they interact and react to the major events and people of the past. Each of these family lines have specific traits and genetic characteristics, as well as social standing, both of which seem equally difficult to overcome, so that, for example, the long-toed and stubby fingered rivermen of 10,000 B.C. tend to be relegated to subservient positions and even slavery throughout their many generations, yet always prove exceptional craftsmen and waterfolk along the way.

The second, and less successful, method Rutherford employs is a continual jumping through time from one significant event to the next. This is understandable from a practical point of view, as obviously two covers could never contain a continuous narrative spanning such a length of time. Yet it proves jarring at every turn, rendering the novel more an anthology of short stories than one cohesive narrative. This is more an issue in the earlier stages of the book, as the temporal shifts grow consecutively shorter with each leap, so that where many hundreds of years are simply discarded between the construction of Stonehenge and the subsequent coming of the Romans, by the time of the Black Death and the War of the Roses it is very nearly a continuous timeline. Indeed, the last chapters, covering the years from the Reformation through World War II and beyond - a span of some 300 years - takes up as many pages as do all those that lead up to the conquest of the Normans in the 11th century.

This proves difficult to overcome at several points, in that many of the events themselves are not interesting enough to draw the story on, and as the characters are new at every section, their stories are often short and shallow. The seemingly endless conquests, for example, grow quickly tedious, and pale by comparison to the fascinating drama surrounding the construction of Stonehenge. Not until the building of Salisbury Cathedral does the intensity pick up again. From then on it's engrossing reading, with the drama building as events become more and more familiar and relevant. This is a problem I often encounter, both in historical fiction and non-fiction accounts of ancient events. For one thing, there is simply less known about such far flung times. But it's also true that the more distant events are in time from us, the harder they are to empathize with. Consequently, the relative weighting of Rutherford's chronology is not so different from that which is found in virtually every collegiate "Intro to Western Civilization" textbook.

All in all, Sarum is a truly astounding work, both in the scope and breadth of its subject, as well as in the way it makes actual history a fascinating tale. After all, human history is the greatest story ever told.

Rating: 4 out of 5