Last year I reviewed Rutherfurd’s latest book New York: The Novel. I had read several books of this author before then but given the enormous size of most of his works they tend to linger on the to read stack. I wanted to read at least one of the before the end of the year so I decided to take one with me on vacation to Germany. Sarum is Rutherfurd’s first novel and it might well be the biggest of the bunch (although the two books on Dublin could be considered one very big novel I suppose). My mass market paperback weighs in at 1344 pages. Even with a lot of reading time available it took me almost a week to read it. Like the other books I have read by Rutherfurd I found it a fascinating read but not nearly as good as some of his later books. It feels a bit unbalanced and the characterization leaves something to be desired.
Sarum covers the history of Rutherfurd’s home town, today known as Salisbury. It is an ambitious attempt to cover a hundred centuries of local history through the lives of a number of families in the region (I think of this as the James Mitchener approach). Rutherfurd starts the story at the end of the last ice age and shows us the hunter Hwll, who witnesses the formation of the English Channel, realizing he is now cut off from mainland Europe. An event thought to have taken place some 7500 before the birth of Christ. The author continues to cover the construction of Stonehenge, the Claudian invasion of Britain, the twilight of the Roman era, the reign of Alfred the Great, several periods from Norman England, including the building of the cathedral, the great plague and the blossoming of the cloth and wool trade, the war of the Roses, the reformation, the civil war and glorious revolution, the expansion of the British empire, the Napoleonic wars, the height of British colonialism, the second world war and a brief episode in 1985 (right before the book was published). In short, Rutherfurd stuffs a lot of local and global history into this one novel.
With a hundred centuries to discuss the author has had to make choices. He admits in his foreword that there is enough material for a book many times this size. There were a couple of things that struck me about his selection. With Stonehenge and quite a few other prehistoric monuments in the region there is of course no escaping this part of the region’s past. With only archaeological evidence to go on, not a whole lot can be said for certain about the people who constructed them or even the purpose of the monuments. It gives Rutherfurd a lot of freedom to fill in the blanks himself. Rutherfurd chooses a very dark story to explain the construction of Stonehenge. On the whole, I was not quite sure what to make of the prehistoric section of the novel.
The second thing that struck me about Rutherfurd’s selection is the rather heavy emphasis he puts on the medieval period. I guess this is the period in history that Salisbury was at its most influential. Rutherfurd goes into detail on the wool trade and the building of the cathedral in particular. His detailed look at daily life in and around the city and the struggle to shake the town clear of the influence of the bishop but the dynastic struggles of the English Kings or the English involvement in France don’t seem to touch daily life in the city too much. As a result Rutherfurd spends a lot of pages on providing historical context that is only marginally important to the story of the characters he is telling.
After the reformation the importance of Salisbury as a centre of the wool trade declines and so does the attention of the author for these periods. There is a bit on the 18th century, when most of the story takes place in various corners of the British Empire. The whole 19th and most of the 20th century (the book was published in 1987) have to make do with some 200 pages. Although the history of the town as such may not be all that exciting during this period I can’t help but feel the author ran out of stream after the Glorious Revolution.
Having read his most recent book a while ago, I noticed quite a bit of progression in the writing. In Sarum I felt that the providing of historical context, which frequently takes the form of several pages of summarized history told by the narrator, was at times slowing the book down. I would not recommend this book to anyone not having an interest in history but even if you do, at some points you’ll probably be telling the author to get on with it. I didn’t have that feeling quite so much in New York, or The Forest for that matter. Both books he wrote later and both book dealing with a shorter time frame.
His growth as a writer also shows in the way he tells the story of his characters. Covering such a time span, Rutherfurd creates quite a few of them for this book. Most only receive a limited number of pages and their stories are not always fleshed out very well. A lot of them are quite predictable too. Especially early on in the novel the characterization isn’t handled very well, later on in the book it improves a little. It is very obvious that Nooma is going to get screwed or how the trial of Godric Body is going to end. If I compare that with what the author did with his characters in New York, there is a world of difference.
There are quite a few aspects of this novel I am not thrilled with. That being said, I did enjoy reading it once I got going. The history of the region is quite interesting and Rutherfurd is obviously intimately familiar with it. The cathedral in particular is an element that receives a lot of attention. It is one of the constant factors in the later part of the novel. I passed though the region once, twenty years ago, on the way to a vacation in Cornwall. We only made a brief stop to visit Stonehenge. After having read this novel, I will no doubt look at the area with different eyes if I ever visit again.
There is another interesting aspect about this novel. Rutherfurd has written three novels situated in a geographically close setting. Sarum is the first, London, a novel which I have yet to read, the second, and The Forest, dealing with the New Forest area, the third. Despite their proximity these places have quite a different history. The New Forest and Salisbury, practically neighbours, are quite different books. I am looking forward to reading London to find out if Rutherfurd succeeded in making this third novel as different.
On the whole, I feel Rutherfurd was a bit too ambitious in writing this first novel. Sarum feels a bit unbalanced by a mediocre start, a very detailed section of Roman and medieval times and a hurried conclusion. If you are interested in the history of Salisbury and the Sailisbury Plain it is a good book to read but it could have been done in a bit more compact fashion and with the history lessons not quite so obvious in the text. Rutherfurd has gone on to write better books, which I suppose, is not the worst that could be said of a début.
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Arrow Books
Format: Mass market paperback
First published: 1987