An Interminable Book About England

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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2 thoughts on “An Interminable Book About England

  1. I’ve read several of Rutherfurd’s books. They are all at least 800 pages, some much longer. His novel about New York is sitting on my library bookshelf, waiting for me to work up the nerve to start it. The last one I read was about London.

    I usually enjoy the first 300 pages, get tired by page 600, and am just practicing endurance by page 900. Too long. But I do feel like I learn something about the grand sweep of history through his books that I would not learn in broken-up sections. So I keep reading them. But I confess I am more grim at the beginning of new one than I was when I blissfully picked up my first Rutherfurd book. 🙂

  2. I picked this up at one point and never finished it. I wasn’t pulled in enough to stick with it. I think I ended up giving it away.

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