The story of the small portion of humanity that settled in and developed Salisbury (“Sarum”: being an abbreviated rendering of the Roman name Sorbiodunum) from the stone age to the 1980s. Following the struggles, fortunes, tribulations, and remade fortunes of five lineages, the novel details how waves of invaders (Cro-Magnons, Normans, Romans, Vikings) changed the landscape, economy, and culture, from Stonehenge to livestock breeding to Cathedral building, but then were in turn changed by it and became part of its fabric.
I had some mixed feelings while reading this book. At 897 pages, it’s a hugely ambitious project – indeed sometimes Rutherfurd casts his net far wider than Sarum itself, following some of Salisbury’s sons in the American Revolution or at D-Day. But high ambition alone does not ensure quality. Certainly it is an achievement in itself simply to tell such an epic tale. But the proof is in the telling itself. And here the prose is, at times, purple at best and clunky and awkward at worst. Some sentences are as in danger of toppling as Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, so packed are they with meandering clauses. Further, the book is astonishingly riddled with comma misuse – I found one egregious comma error literally at least every four pages, which raises the question of whether the book was proofread at all. Finally, there is Rutherfurd’s authorial style, which is preachy and intrusive, especially in the early chapters, where he feels the need to step into his fictional world and explain in sometimes lengthy paragraphs the science or geography behind what a character was doing, as if to assure the readers that he’d done his research before popping back behind the curtain again. Or he might begin a section under the rubric with, for example, 1244, only to state a few paragraphs in that in order to really pick up at that point, “we must first go back a little.” Then why did he begin in 1244? Why not just tell the thread of the story from that earlier point, or have the characters refer to the slow changes that came before? These anachronistic authorial intrusions would have worked better, if he really had to have them, as endnotes to each chapter, rather than breaking the narrative so jarringly. On the positive side, the way he charts the evolution of Sarum’s economy, for example, is astounding and commendable. But what really makes the book work is the human adventure: each time he dips into a past era, there is a poignant or dramatic or thrilling vignette, a short story involving one of his five families, that underscores the vicissitudes of fate and the indomitable spark that keeps humanity going through the fortunes and failures that time brings. With a heavy-handed, level-headed editor, this could have been a brilliant book. As it is, it’s an impressive curiosity. It was a chore to read at times, but I’m not sorry I read it all.