Sarum: The Novel Of England, by Edward Rutherfurd
Every once in a while I read a novel simply because it is recommended by a friend, and in this case I read this 900 page novel on the recommendation of a coworker of mine and fellow data nerd who happens to be fascinated by speculative fiction. Despite the simultaneously enigmatic title and the subtitle’s lack of any sort of humility, this is a novel that works on a lot of levels, and would have worked even more had the author been knowledgeable about genetics. That is not to say that the material is necessarily uplifting, or that it is a perfect novel, because neither of those are necessarily the case, but this is an epic novel that delivers on its considerable promise and offers a reading experience that is both pleasurable in many ways as well as thoughtful and intellectually stimulating on the influence of place on the lives of people as well as the persistence of family patterns of behavior over many generations. When a book is 900 pages of dense reading, it needs every advantage it can get, and having a compelling structure and intellectual depth is certainly a good advantage to have. Those who are willing to read this novel will have to invest a fair amount of time, and that time is well-rewarded for those who find family cycles to be worthwhile subjects of thought and inquiry .
The contents of this book are straightforward enough in one sense, but immensely massive in scope. The author begins in the remotest prehistory by looking at early settlers in the area of Salisbury, and then provides a series of short stories about different people and different families that intermarry, that enter and leave, that rise and fall, but that preserve their essential qualities and that show consistent patterns of behaving within certain lines, often fighting lengthy generational feuds over wealth and office over the course of the entire novel. There are 19 short stories, each of them with their own main characters and their own story arc over the course of the novel, ranging from the shortest, about the purchase of and donation of Stonehenge in the early 20th century, to stories that go on for more than 100 pages. Many of the stories are full of interest, sometimes in the prurient way of a mildly predatory boss seeking to romantically pursue his attractive driver who is carrying on an affair with an American-born cousin. Come to think of it, there are a lot of affairs in this book, a lot of sex and violence, and that ought to appeal to many of the readers, along with the pettiness of fighting relatives and the absurdity of larger political activities or the insular nature of provincial small-town life, which both changes a lot and does not change much at all over the cosmic scope of this particular novel.
It should be noted that although there is a larger thread connecting these characters through their family lines, that the novel is not really about any of the people involved themselves. The novel is really about the nation itself, sort of a series of vignettes and sketches, short stories and novellas that demonstrate the persistence of geographical influences as well as the role of individual actions within that larger geographical and social structure, which is sometimes the subject of explicit commentary, like by the melancholy socialist Patricia Shockley to her paramour cousin during a World War II affair, which is perhaps the strangest part of the novel. The author tips his hand even more explicitly at the very end of the novel, when a thief and the likely descendent of a rapist from a few generations before has the following closing reflection: “But if he thought about the matter at all, he supposed that here, at the place where the five rivers met, life would go on, as it had always done before (897).” And that is the point of this novel, that the change of technology and rulers, of languages and conditions does not change the way that life continues to go on as it has before generation after generation, because we retain the same nature inside of us. Whether that theme is inspirational or infuriating given the epic length and scope of this novel is left to the readers to determine for themselves.
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