by Edward Rutherfurd
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When Edward Rutherfurd published his first novel, Sarum, in 1987, he focused his novel, not on a character or group of characters, but rather on the location of the title. He traced the area through history by looking at several families whose lives were intertwined throughout the ages. Rutherfurd has continued to use this technique through novels dealing with the fictional towns of Russka and the historical city of London before turning his attention to the New Forest of southern England in The Forest.
The Forest begins in the late eleventh century after the Normans have conquered England. The New Forest has only recently been set aside as a royal preserve when one of the defining moments in its history occurs, the assassination of King William II. Rutherfurd uses this period to introduce us to the Prides, Puckles, Albans, Tottens and Martells, some of the families whose lives he will use to track the history of the region through a series of novellas, which will eventually lead to the year 2000.
Rutherfurd does an excellent job of balancing the narrative needs of the story with historical detail, although there are some occasions where he goes off on an historical tangent, which seems slightly out of place. In most cases, these tangents are thematically linked to the story Rutherfurd is telling and so will often occur separate from their chronological context.
Just as he was determined to provide an history of Salisbury in Sarum and London in London, so, too, does Rutherfurd provide an history of the New Forest in The Forest. He has carefully set chapters in periods when the New Forest played a role in the national history of England, whether the assassination of William Rufus or the upheavals of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, the New Forest has a tendency to have been out of the way for many major events, allowing Rutherfurd to focus on the stories he wishes to tell, without rehashing general English history. He also makes use of the features of the forest, from the abundance of deer to the longevity of oak trees, to provide continuity throughout the book.
While the Forest is the central feature of the novel, Rutherfurd does not neglect the human aspect of the novel. His characters fit into their own times while not being completely foreign to modern sensibilities. This gives the reader the opportunity to bond with some of the characters. Because Rutherfurd has a tendency to maintain character traits in a family through the ages (although this has lessened since his first novel), readers will find themselves sympathetic to the same families as the centuries progress.
Rutherfurd demonstrates an understanding, not only of historical events, but also of the trends, which lead up to those events and how they affect the people who must live with the consequences. While the continuing interplay between the same families seems a little strained at times, especially in an age with increased mobility, it provides Rutherfurd with a mechanism to link the stories together on a more personal level than just the setting.Of course, Rutherfurd did not pioneer this method of novel-writing, but The Forest does cement his reputation as the heir to James Michener. His historical novels are engrossing and demonstrate both an knowledge of and a love for the periods and setting of which he writes.
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