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Dublin - Edward Rutherfurd

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Author: Edward Rutherfurd / Genre: Fiction / Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd

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      06.02.2008 17:23
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      The literary equivalent of the emergency chocolate you keep at the back of the pantry...

      This is really not the type of book that I would normally pick up, let alone choose to read, however it was given to us as a gift and therefore I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. Being an avid reader I am always on the look out for more material to feed the fire, so am not one to look a gift book in the mouth, so to speak.

      Rutherford seems to have made a career of writing these sweeping historical fiction novels, basing the novel around a particular place - Dublin, in the case of this novel - and using a series of characters through the centuries to explore the history. Dublin is his fourth of fifth book following this format - the preceeding ones including London, New Forest and Russka.

      I can see how this premise would be very appealing to many readers - it combines some well-researched and interesting historical information (all the better for improving one's ability to hold high brow dinner party conversations), with the usual blend of best-seller simplicity, stereotyping, and sex (the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down). If one could separate the novel from its best-seller tendencies, I can see how, in the abstract, it is an interesting idea to put the focus of a novel on a place and its common history, rather than a specific set of characters. I would be interested to read a novel that follows this theme but holds itself to higher standards of storytelling.

      Dublin starts out reasonably well, although still with that extremely plot-driven best-seller style of writing. The first characters we are introduced to belong to a small-fry chief's family residing in the area that will one day be Dublin, and the then High King of Ireland's family. The love story that develops between two of the characters is engaging, if somewhat predictable. The focus on the Druids of ancient Ireland was particularly interesting, and helped to get me stuck into the novel.

      The trouble was that fairly soon (since this is historical fact I probably can't blame the author entirely!) the island's native religious belief system begins to be overrun by Christianity, which since we have recently formed attachments to the previous characters, does not sit so well with the reader, however Rutherford still expects us to sympathise with the whole new cast of characters coming in to play in subsequent generations.

      Basically this encapsulates the problem with the novel; Rutherford tries very hard to get us to associate and sympathise with his characters, succeeding far better in some cases than others, but then no sooner have you become attached to a character than they disappear again into the mists of time. Instead, Rutherford seems to try to engage the reader by following the lines of several families through history, using the most stereotyped and in some cases ridiculous characterisations imaginable. For example, we had one family of crafty merchants whose defining feature is a bulging eye that seemed to somehow have a terrible ability to see to the heart of all matters (or some such rubbish), and we were constantly reminded of the 'piercing green eyes, and dark good looks' of the sensitive, spirited descendants of Fergus (one of the initial chiefs in the area). Personally I found this a cheap substitute for real character development, and even, at times, a little insulting to the intelligence - the way the author tried to 'allude' (about as subtly as a sledge hammer) to a new character's lineage.

      The novel also seems to take very little stance, politically or ethically, in relation to the different people that came to Ireland to repress, conquer, exploit or otherwise influence the country and it's population, which is a bit weak from my point of view. If you are writing a novel which chooses to centralise a place, rather than characters, then surely there should be some feeling of engagement with the city and it's development. Personally I felt no emotional connection at all to the development of the city, and reading the novel I never particularly cared which army won during the various battles. It was all told so matter of factly and through characters that I didn't really care about that I couldn't really get invested.

      So why keep reading through the 1200 odd pages, I hear you ask? Well, for all its failings, I did find the scope and vision of the project to be interesting, and there were sufficient hints throughout the book that something worthwhile might actually happen to one of the characters soon for me to keep reading (these were largely false hopes I should add). There were a few notable character interactions that engaged me enough for me to want to keep reading - one for example, being a series of misunderstandings between two women leading one to suspect that the other was trying to cheat her out of her husband, her land, and her money, when indeed quite the opposite was the case.

      The trouble is that these well set-up character inter-plays never actually reached satisfactory conclusions. In the case of the two women, the ending was simply that the pure motives of the one woman became clear, and the other felt foolish for her suspicions. Then the story moves on to the next set of characters. Not exactly terribly satisfying.

      The novel has also clearly been meticulously researched. I am no scholar on Irish history so cannot attest to the accuracy of the information, but it does at least seem to be fairly detailed, which leads me to believe that Rutherford has done his homework. It is just a shame, in my opinion, that he doesn't seem to have invested the same effort into sufficient character development to make the story really engaging. For example, we could have had much more focus on a few sets of characters throughout the period addressed by the novel, and perhaps the time gaps between these generations could have been filled by characters telling the history of their ancestors, or some other such device to make the characters seem more 3D.

      All in all I would find this hard to recommend, as it isn't really especially successful as a work of fiction, or as a historical account. It's probably only worth reading if you're a particular fan of historical fiction, if you have a specific interest in Dublin and Irish history, or if, like me, you can't find enough to read and need something to keep you occupied for a week or two.

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