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Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward…
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Sarum: The Novel of England (original 1987; edition 1988)

by Edward Rutherfurd

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2,723412,167 (4)136
Member:Booksloth
Title:Sarum: The Novel of England
Authors:Edward Rutherfurd
Info:Arrow (1988), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 1344 pages
Collections:Fiction, Historical fiction (WWII and before), Read but unowned
Rating:
Tags:history, Salisbury, to Mike

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Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd (1987)

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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
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 1,033 page novel, said novel must have had something going for it. 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.

Some books in the 800 page range can be treated more like sprints. The latter Harry Potter books for example. While they by know 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 1,033 pages at a leisurely pace becomes more palatable.

With that established in one's mind at the outset, several factors about the book itself also make its consumption easier. For example, Rutherford's prose is usually easy and unassuming. Descriptive without being adjective fodder, the description 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. It needs to be for obvious reasons if one's story spans over 10,000 years. Any one person's life is but a blink of an eye during such a time span. 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, or, two third 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 600 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. And by the time we get to New Sarum, the connections between the families, and their respective places in the town/region can become a bit confusing. (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 400 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 2/3.

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 mult-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. But even if that were the intention of the author, the personal intrigues of the characters themselves need not have been sacrificed as much, nor did the detail of the historical/political landscape have to be twice as meticulous in the latter chapters than it was in the earlier chapters.

I also think that there was an ever so slight pre-occupation 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 1944 could be from sex in 1480, or 1290, or Roman times...etc. What I thought was going to be a visceral preoccupation with mating that the pre-historic 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. ( )
1 vote TyUnglebower | Jun 28, 2014 |
This book had the potential to be good, but clearly I need to stop reading this sort of sweeping historical epic. I generally read quickly, but when every chapter is a different story, I find it hard to get into the book, and thus don't make quick progress.
The ending especially left me very bleh.
I liked Rutherford's Paris, but this did not do it for me. ( )
  AgnesArt | Dec 10, 2013 |
If you like sweeping historical epics, this is for you. This author is the British James Michener. ( )
1 vote sswright46168 | Aug 29, 2013 |
A truly successful epic novel*, one that covers very long periods of time, is a tricky undertaking. You have to provide enough information to feed the appetites of history buffs, but you also have to balance that with a convincing human story. Rutherfurd doesn't quite achieve that balance.

Long time spans in a novel require a circus truckload of diverse characters. And at least a third of those characters have to be rich and interesting rather than an endless line-up of Whats-His-Name, So-and-So, Bad Guy, Good Girl, That-Weird-Dude-Again, etc. Rutherfurd's characters are more of the latter, unfortunately. There are a couple of stand-outs but the author gave each generation of the novel's core families repetitive traits (stuff like unusually long toes, short stature, criminality, etc.)causing them to blur together. I got a bit tired of each family replaying varied iterations of its genetic destiny. (The short guy always gets the short stick. Every. Single. Time. That one family is always nefarious. Always.)
The characters become less wooden outside of their personal dramas, when they're responding to larger patterns of political intrigue, plagues, changing technologies, and war over the centuries. That's where this book is at its best. The coming of the Black Death and the construction of Salisbury Cathedral were both particularly interesting.
So, to sum up: the historical part of this book gets an 8 out of 10, the novel part gets a 6.

* Truly successful epic novel usually = James Michener ( )
  saturnloft | Aug 28, 2013 |
Some professional reviewers complain that he gave his families the same traits generation after generation with little change. I have a copy, need to read.
  afinch11 | Aug 20, 2013 |
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This book is dedicated to those who built
and to those who are now trying to save
Salisbury Spire
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First, before the beginning of Sarum, came a time when the world was a colder and darker place.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804102988, Mass Market Paperback)

A masterpiece that is breathtaking in its scope, SARUM is an epic novel that traces the entire turbulent course of English history. This rich tapesty weaves a compelling saga of five families who preserve their own particular characteristics over the centuries, and offer a fascinating glimpse into the future.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:09 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Follow five families over the course of 10,000 years as they portray the history of England, from the Ice Age to the present.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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