Yes, all the great events are here including a pretty believable stab at that old mystery, the building of Stonehenge It is fair to assess the book on the basis of how Mr Rutherfurd has managed to make imagination leap over all the obvious pitfalls. Does he skimp on character in order to parade the history? Or does the charting of great deeds dominate the folk who undertake them? A sense of history was never more easily discovered. But does he bring off his heroic task?
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Sarum certainly does on several levels. I will say, however, one should go into it completely aware of its nature, and should treat it as a marathon, not a sprint. The latter Harry Potter books for example. While they by no Given that I, slow reader that I am and often in need of days long breaks from a narrative of any size was able to finish, without skimming, a 1, page novel, said novel must have had something going for it.
While they by no means needed to be anywhere near that long, their fantasy and action-oriented narratives make them rather fast, on-the-go reads in spite of their length. Sarum is not such a book. That should be obvious right away, as even its subtitle, "A Novel of England" indicates the vast scope this tome will attempt to cover. And when one takes this idea into account, that the novel is really about a country, or more specifically an area of a country that has been populated for thousands of years , tackling its 1, pages at a leisurely pace becomes more palatable.
Descriptive without being adjective fodder, the descriptions he gives of places and people are enough to provide one with an image without putting one to sleep for much of the novel. This is especially true for the first two thirds of the piece. It also helps that the book is broken down into what actually amounts to a collection of short stories with common characteristics. In fact, so is the existence of a whole family unit. So we have mostly accessible writing over the course of various short stories, all tied together by a common setting by interweaving the stories of five families and their descendants over the course of millenia, starting with just after the ice age.
It is with this formula that Sarum hooks the reader, and introduces them effortlessly to historic periods that are both known to us through documentation, and those about which we can only speculate. From the period of hunter-gatherers to about the time of Cromwell, o, two-thirds of the book, the form continues to work much of the time, and I found myself getting through this percentage of the novel faster than I would have expected.
That first or so pages are an educational, descriptive and adventurous epic that fires the imagination. And there is even a delightful recurring device that appears throughout most of these pages which I enjoyed revisiting each time.
Not that the first two thirds are without some faults. The characters are sometimes presented with less depth because of the sheer amount of historical ground that needs to be covered.
Descriptions do tend to get a bit heavy and drag down the action at times. Treating each section as a totally separate story despite references to previous sections will help inoculate the reader against this.
There is also a family tree provided at the beginning to which the reader will refer frequently. Also, a bit too much time is spent in similar time frames. But in the final third of the book the author takes a bit of a turn. Aspects of the book that had been engaging earlier on begin to wear down the proceedings. Starting roughly around the time of the rising of Cromwell, pages-long dissertations on the nature of the political and economic landscape begin to take precedence over the story of the people experiencing same.
What had been a book about people who lived through the changing fortunes of their world began to be more of a vehicle for historical presentation that made a sometimes too occasional use of characters as cover. Further, the final third abandoned the previously mentioned delightful recurring device, and the reader feels cheated as it had been set up as a device that one expects to see again and again.
Most problematic for the final third however, is the pacing. It is as though the author must now rush to cover more history with less story in the final pages, and so the amount of pages that would have covered about 70 years in the first half of the book sometimes cover close to two centuries in the second half.
And in the process we move somewhat into textbook territory, where we leave characters and plot for stretches that are far too long when compared with the first parts of the book.
In the final third, the slightly shallower character development, for which we can forgive the author earlier on, becomes a bit of a liability. As a result, the final third of the book is in fact less intriguing, imaginative and easy to read than the first two-thirds.
Not that the latter parts lacked positive qualities. Some of the episodes and scenes were more interesting than others. When he takes his time to tell the story, as opposed to telling the history , things still work in Sarum. But one cannot escape the rushed feeling of the final sections, and it is a shame. One would almost rather see all of the sections in the novel take on this rushed approach so they matched the latter parts in a consistent whole.
Or perhaps the opposite, and more desirable approach: see the whole book move as leisurely as the first sections did, but have fewer sections. As covering all of the years mentioned at the same pace as the "Old Sarum" chapters would have resulted in a book twice this size.
Or in a multi-volume work. I realize that this may have been intentional; the author may have been alluding to the fact that life and history itself moved much slower in Pre-Roman times, and hence, so does the novel.
I also think that there was an ever so slight preoccupation with sex. It seems that even in the shallower chapters Such as the highly rushed "Encampment" , the author dedicated an unneeded amount of detail to the bodies, orgasms, and lustful preoccupation of the sometimes otherwise flat characters than was needed.
It was at no time vulgar, but after a while one begins to wonder how different sex in could be from sex in , or , or Roman times What I thought was going to be a visceral preoccupation with mating that the prehistoric times required turned out to be a thread throughout all of the ages that did not fade as much as I would have thought at first.
Still, the love of the author for both his work, and for the area of Salisbury is obvious throughout the piece. Taken in its entirety it truly is a neat concept executed with meticulous research, casual prose, and enviable passion. It may have run out of gas near the end, but there were nonetheless enough fumes to get the book where it needed to be by the end even if some of the short-cuts prevented as much sight seeing as I would have liked.
Due to its originality, the reader roots for Sarum, and that is what propelled me to finish it, and to have been happy in so doing.
Sarum: The Novel of England