It’s not that I disliked Sarum: The Novel of England. It’s just that it was so, so, so very long. Many books seem too short, and you long for them to continue. Some books, even though they are long, keep you glued to your seat and still sad when they are over. But Sarum, while a decent book, should have been a series, not one volume. At 897 pages, it could have been a series of half a dozen books and been the better for it.
The book traces several families who live around the Salisbury Plain in England, beginning in primeval times and ending in the latter part of the 20th century. Each chapter forms sort of a novella, with separate characters from the families interacting as their fortunes rise and fall. You can follow the family trees in the beginning of the book, or keep track of them by characteristic (the family who has stubby fingers, the family who has pointy faces and “prehensile toes,” the family who is stingy, guys who are good with their hands, those who love a certain part of the land, people who are prone to fits of infidelity, and so forth. I suppose the families themselves are the characters–although I found it a bit of a stretch to follow how a family line could have the same character traits over millennia, much less the same physical features. That was probably an attempt to give the book continuity and help you remember which family was which. Not many of the characters in the individual sections are well developed.
Several sections were tremendously interesting, and those I wish Rutherford had developed more and made into stand-alone chapters. Other sections were thinly plotted and overfull of mundane details.
I appreciate Rutherford’s aim to make Sarum a sweeping epic spanning all of British history. However, I far prefer the approach that Bernard Cornwell, who writes of similar subject matter, takes of writing individual novels about different points in British history. For one thing, he almost certainly gets better sales that way, but for another his characters have more time to grow into themselves and his readers don’t get wearied.
Although I’m a huge fan of historical novels, and British historical novels in particular, I found I rather plodded though at least half of this book. By the end I was just massively relieved it was over. Perhaps it’s the sort of book that is better off kept on a shelf and pulled out from time to time to read a section here and there rather than tackling it all at once?
Have any of you read Sarum? If so, what did you think?
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