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"Sarum" is an ambitious book to say the least. Weighing in at an impressive 1300 pages, it represents an epic historical novel, several years of research and writing and a good many hours of reading. (Or listening - Sarum is also available on audiobook, with a running time of some 47 hours!) Rather than focussing on one era of history as most authors chose to do, Edward Rutherford has rather traced the entire course of English history from the Mesolithic to the present day (or at least 1987; the present day at the publication of the work) of one region over the course of this book. It was both this ambition and a number of personal recommendations that led me to read Sarum; I was intrigued to see just how such a lengthy and eventful span of time could be condensed into one novel. And more to the point, could it be done effectively, without seeming to jerk at random from time to time? - The structure of Sarum The setting for this book is Salisbury and its immediate surroundings of Wiltshire. Rutherford chose this part of England because "no place...I believe, has a longer visible history of building and occupation than the Sarum region...the wealth of archaeological information, let alone historical record is overwhelming" (preface to Sarum). As for the name "Sarum", it is a local term for the city, thought to originate from a mis-spelt abbreviation used by a medieval scribe, but later adopted by locals as an affectionate name for the area. Rutherford uses this name throughout the novel, however, alongside others that are appropriate to the time: Sorviodunum in Roman, Sarisberie in Norman French. The device used to carry this novel is the intertwining histories of five local families. The Wilsons, descended from the original Mesolithic settlers, one time slaves and outcasts who rise to become local lords. The Porters, family of the Roman administrator Porteus and his Celtic wife, who all seem to inherit his met
iculous nature. The Masons, a line of skilled craftsmen originating in the Neolithic, who help build the two greatest monuments of the Sarum region: Stonehenge and Salisbury cathedral. The Shockleys, originally Saxon thanes who take their name from the profitable farm their family ran for many generations. Finally, the Godfreys, Norman knights of the name de Godfroi, who become anglicised and poor, falling to the very bottom of the social spectrum before recovering their luck. Each family line therefore represents a different cultural grouping that arrived at Sarum at different times, be it locals of prehistoric decent, or incomers from the successive waves of invasion that England once faced, from Roman, then Saxon, then Norman. This structure allows both a gradual introduction to the different lines as we move through time - to attempt to satisfactorily do this for five families all at once would be both tedious and confusing for the reader - whilst still providing an element of continuity over the nine thousand years that are compressed into the span of the novel. Each chapter in the book (there are 19 in all) takes a different era in Sarum's history and gives you in essence a short story based around the events of that time and the central five families. There is therefore little of an overall plot - you are given nineteen fictionalised history lessons, nineteen stories that allow you to explore one time in Sarum's past, nineteen glimpses of the fortunes of five families. The times chosen are rather predictable: the first settlement of the area, the building of Stonehenge, the various invasions of Sarum, the building of the cathedral, and so on to 1987, but I think anyone could forgive the author that, as these are after all the times of greatest interest to the reader. In addition to this, we are amply provided with maps and family trees to help us make sense of this rather large quantity of information. It is of course unlikely that any one fa
mily name could have survived for as long as the ones in the book do (something which the author freely admits to), but there is increasing evidence from history and archaeology than families can certainly persist for very long periods of time in one location. The continuity of occupation that Sarum gives us, then, could certainly be not entirely incorrect. - My opinion After finishing Sarum, I am filled with mixed feelings. On the plus side, Rutherford does indeed managed to compress 9,000 years into 1300 pages, covering what seems to be all major and significant events that affected Salisbury during that time. It also acts very well indeed as an easily digested history lesson: everything is thoroughly researched and explained succinctly, clearly and in an interesting manner to the reader. If nothing else, you will come away with a better understanding of English history at the end of it all! The big advantage of writing a novel over a huge span of history, though, is that you can see the long-term effects of events and people upon places and families. If you have ever wondered about the relevance of history or how one long-ago event or person can possibly affect the way we live today, then Sarum can amply demonstrate it for you. In particular, I found it fascinating how one uneducated Wilson man took advantage of the events following the Black Death to turn his family around from serfdom to the road to a future of nobility, although the complete change could only be seen over the course of 500 years. And I was also pleased to note that the transition between periods was on the whole smooth and logical. But there are a number of down sides to attempting a novel of this nature. The first is that characterisation is inevitably going to be weak, as there is a very limited amount of time and space in which to introduce each character. Rutherford had tried to get around this problem by giving each family line distinct qualities that survive th
roughout the time span of the book - the Wilson family are always cunning, shifty and untrustworthy, whilst the Masons are short, fat and red-faced, for example - which is quite a feat of genetics, I must say! However, all this achieves is the production of an endless series of characters that are hard to distinguish from one another, which can get a little samey and repetitive by the time to get towards the end of the book. Secondly, there is the problem that in each snapshot of time you will of course have a number of historical factions, forces and influences at play. To fully explore these themes in a short space of a chapter therefore requires many of the characters to embody and represent these forces or influences (such as the Roman Porteus representing the civilising influence of the Roman Empire, or the division of the Shockley family into Royalist, Parliamentarian and Puritan during the Civil War chapter). I won't go as far to say cliché, but at times this pushes on the edge of believability and can stunt character development further. Finally, I will say that chapters were quite variable, some being more enjoyable than others. While the overall enjoyment of the book I would give 6 out of 10, the individual chapter ranged from a fascinating 10 out of 10 (notably form the chapters concerning the Roman invasion, Saxon occupation and Black Death) to a dismal 2 out of 10 for the tiresome and excessive chapters on the Reformation, which just went on for too long. It was mostly enjoyable and entertaining, and the writing was certainly competent, although I did not get the sense of power and spark of life that I have heard other readers of the book talk about. It was a good book, but in my opinion, not a great book. Overall, recommended to anyone teenaged or older who loves historical novels, has the time to tackle such a weighty tome, and the patience to keep referring back to the maps and family trees. ;-) · Re-rea
dable? Probably, but you would need to leave a few years between reads. Personally, I cannot see me reading it again anytime soon, though. · Value for money? The paperback copy of this book costs £7.99, but I bought as part of WH Smiths' recent 3 for 2 offer, so it actually cost around £4 for me. Although this is a long way from the best thing I have ever read, it certainly filled it a few otherwise empty evenings and Sunday afternoons over a three-week period, and it was a rather good revision of British history for me. I would say in this light it was good value, considering the length of the book you get for your money. · Buy or borrow? Well I bought, and as I said felt that I had had value for money, even if there were parts of the book I did not like. I am not sorry that I bought, but on reflection I think it would have been better as a borrow, especially as I cannot see me reading it again in the foreseeable future. If this is the first Edward Rutherford book you have read, I would recommend borrowing. · Not suitable for...? Children, people with short attention spans, anyone not interested in history. There is nothing in Sarum to offend any readers, though. - Details Sarum is written by Edward Rutherford and was published in 1987 by Arrow Books ? the paperback version came out in 1988 and costs £7.99. It is still in print and is widely available at bookshops, though. ISBN: 0 09 052730 8
Sarum certainly isn't a book you pick up lightly. That applies quite literally since it weighs in at 1400 pages, certainly longer than your average debut novel, but of couse I'm talking about the subject matter. The basic premise is that this is a book about the history of the bowl in the chalk ridges of the West where 5 rivers flow together and present day Salisbury is situated (Sarum is the ancient name for this area) told from the time of the first human settlers up to the present day (a span of over 10,000 years) through countless events, not least the construction of both Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. The book is told from the perspective of 5 different families. The Wilsons who rise from the gutter to become the local lords. The Porters, decended from a Roman bureaucrat named Porteus who inherit his meticulous nature. The Godfreys descend from the Norman family of de Godefrois who arrive after 1066. The Masons are inspired stoneworkers involved in the construction of Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. Finally the Shockleys; honest hardworking farmers who become locked in a feud with the Wilsons that lasts for generations. The structure of the book is a series of snapshot stories involving members of these families, and their interactions with each other and the surrounding areas. For example the first story in the book is about how Hwll (sic), a nomadic prehistoric hunter, leads his family south from what is now northern England at the start of the most recent ice age in search of better hunting, and settles in the area, carefully managing to avoid offending the local hunting bands. The advantage of this format is that the history of the area and its effect on the population can be told; and what a history it is! Edward Rutherford's research into the Sarum area and British history in general is groundbreaking in its accuracy and detail, and must have taken many months. Every event in Englis
h history and the effects on the Sarum area are told, from the Roman and Norman invasions to the Black Death, Spanish Armada and Industrial Revolution. This being Salisbury religious events are of particular significance, and the chapters surrounding the reigns of Henry VIII and his children, and the bloody religious struggles in them, are particularly fascinating. Reading this novel is actually a pretty thorough revision of English and British history and it's none the worse for it. The disadvantage of this format is in the characterisation. Since each chapter features different generations of the same families, who often share traits (Masons down the ages are always short, fat and bald, while Wilsons are always shifty and cunning) it's very easy for characters to blend into one. When you're on to your tenth generation of Shockleys in a row I defy anyone to name every individual and his distinctive traits. Fortunately there is a family tree provided so a quick bit of revision in the event of confusion can usually sort things out. To anyone interested in the history of Britain in its broadest sense (and let's face it we have a long and fascinating history) this will be an outstanding novel and they'll zip through all 1400 pages, as will those who know and love the Salisbury area. Anyone looking for a book with a central character or a tightly written single plot should probably steer clear. The final word is a note from the author reminding the reader that the spire to Salisbury Cathedral is in urgent need of restoration (this is a fundamental part of the book's final chapter) and encouraging donations, so the book is married to a more than worthy cause. The author, Edward Rutherford has gone on to write books in a similar style about both London and the New Forest, to much public and critical acclaim.
A novel tracing the story of the city of Salisbury and of five families through a hundred centuries of turmoil, tyranny, passion and prosperity. It charts the entire course of English history and the social and political forces that shaped its society.