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Sarum tells the entire history of England, from its ice-age prehistory when the first men arrived on the island to the 1980s, by focusing the passing of ages on the city of Salisbury, once known as "Sarum." Located on the edge of Salisbury Plain, at the juncture of five rivers, archeological evidence tells us it's been a trading settlement since prehistoric times (and of course, it is located only a few miles from Stonehenge). Rutherfurd uses a mixture of archeology and recorded history to tell us the complete history of Sarum from the arrival of Hwll the Hunter, seeking high ground as the ice melts, to the last in the line of the Shockleys and Masons, who have entertained us with their family dramas for centuries, trying to restore Salisbury Cathedral in 1985.
How historically accurate is this book? It would take a historian to criticize that aspect of Rutherfurd's storytelling, though obviously everything involving the neolithic settlers, followed by the bronze age settlers, ancestors of the Celts, and pretty much everything up to Roman times, has to be more speculation than known fact. To this day, we don't know for sure exactly when Stonehenge was built or for what purpose, and I remember an Irish history professor in college telling me "Don't believe anything anyone writes about druids - crazy people write about druids." So Rutherfurd's take on the bloodthirsty rites of these Bronze Age tribesmen is probably as likely as any other.
This is not primarily a history book, though, but a multi-generational (many, many, many generations) soap opera, through which history is told. Of the many families living around Sarum, Rutherfurd invents several — the Wilsons (descended from "Will's son" though actually present as fisher-folk living on Sarum's rivers since the Ice Age), the Masons (descended from a medieval mason, who was himself descended from an old Celtic craftsman who learned architecture from the Romans, who was himself descended from the architect of Stonehenge), the Porters (descended from a Roman officer named Porteus), the Godfreys (descended from a Norman knight), the Shockleys, the Forests (a branch of the Wilsons that renamed themselves something more noble once they got money) — who frequently change names and reverse fortunes and have interwoven lives, feuds, and marriages with the passing of centuries. The family that ruled Sarum in Roman times becomes in the 19th century the tenant farmers living on land owned by another family that were Anglo-Saxon peasants in the 11th, and so on. Naturally they don't know their ancient noble (or common) origins the way the reader does, other than as family tales passed down which they believe to be largely fictitious, like Doctor Barnagel, who laughs at his family's legend of being descended from a Danish invader known for crying "Bairn nae gel!" ("Don't kill the children!"), not knowing that it's actually true.
This is a historical epic told through the eyes of everyday people. Rutherfurd has each of his families passing down physical and personality traits through the generations that are more fanciful than genetic, but there is something pleasing and familiar in seeing what the scheming, "spider-like" Wilsons are up to in each century, or what form the next generation's incarnation of a buxom, Amazonish Shockley girl will take.
It sprawls across all of history. How are these families affected by the Roman invasion? The Anglo-Saxon invasion? The Danish invasion? The Norman invasion? The Black Death? The Reformation? The English Civil War? The New World? The Napoleonic Wars? All the way into the 20th century, where things became a bit rushed, covering the passing of time from World War I to 1985 in as many pages as earlier were spent on a single generation in the medieval era.
Stylistically, Edward Rutherfurd is a plain and unembellished writer and he often relies on cliches and tropes, particularly all the women with their "firm young bodies" from paleolithic times onward, and the aforementioned repetition of family traits, from the Wilsons' "long-toed feet," dating back to the Ice Age, to the precise fussiness of the Porters, dating back to their Roman ancestor. Chapters begin with a lot of historical exposition explaining what's going on in this era, then zooming into what our families are up to and which side they're taking. But none of this was a detriment to me; it was a long, long listen and very satisfying. The time spent to research and write an epic spanning over 10,000 years and yet get us personally invested in the lives of individual people made it well worth it.
I liked it enough that I am pushing Rutherfurd's New York epic higher on my TBR list. This is a big fat historical epic to satisfy anyone who likes these kinds of books. Wanda McCaddon's narration was steady and professional throughout - there were a few times when her voice sounded a little shrill, but she handled male and female roles with the perfect British accent. The only place she fell flat was, predictably, the American characters (hardly any Brits can drawl Yank believably), and they only show up briefly in the very last chapters.
25 of 25 people found this review helpful
If you love history, if you love long books, you will love Sarum. It was the first Rutherfurd book I read and have since read everything he has written. I absolutely do not have a problem with Wanda McCaddon's narration, I think she did a phenomenal job of reading and you must remember she was reading the book. If you get bored with long books of history this one is probably not for you, however, I listened to it twice, and found it was easier to keep the families straight through the name changes, on the second listen.
33 of 34 people found this review helpful