by Edward Rutherfurd
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
London is Edward Rutherfurd's third enormous volume of historical fiction. As with his previous works, London traces the history of a single location throughout its history by examining the interlinked lives of several families in Mitcheneresque manner. Although linked, each chapter of London can be read as a novella on its own.
Despite the rises and falls of the families Ducket, Silversleeves, Bull, Barnikal, Carpenter, Meredith and Penny, the real protagonist of the book is the city of London itself. Interspersed with the stories of the lives of his characters, Rutherfurd examines the life of London. This is, at once, both London's strength and weakness. Rutherfurd's history lessons give a concise lesson into the society, politics and culture, not only of London, but of England in general for the periods he explores. Unfortunately, when he takes the time to relate this background information, he does so as a lecturer and all action in the novel ceases until Rutherfurd ensures that the reader has the information the reader needs.
As mentioned, this is the same template Rutherfurd used for his earlier novel of England, Sarum, set in Rutherfurd's native Salisbury. One of the oddities of the families in Sarum was that character traits carried from generation to generation for more than two thousand years. In London, fathers and sons may share the same genetic traits, but their characters frequently vary according to the generations. However, while it may be believable that in a smaller city like Salisbury, the same families may have their histories linked for such an extended period of time, this tends to stretch the novel's credibility in a city as huge as London.
Rutherfurd actually ties London to Sarum in a few places. The Barnikal family is descended from a viking who made an appearance in the earlier novel. Similarly, the Carpenters are descended from a family which was forced to flee Sarum after trying to kill one of Rutherfurd's earlier characters. At various other points visitors from Sarum make brief appearances. However, none of the periods Rutherfurd covers in London directly overlap those covered in Sarum. Furthermore, Rutherfurd keeps such cross-overs to a minimum to reward those readers who have read the earlier work.
Rutherfurd's strengths are his storylines and his ability to weave his characters into the fabric of London society. Whether Rutherfurd is describing Alderman Bull in Richard II's England or O Be Joyful Carpenter in the Commonwealth, his characters act and react as would be proper for a member of their social class at their time in history. The majority of Rutherfurd's characters are likeable, which makes it ironic that when he introduces one completely unlikeable character he does so in a manner that none of the characters in that section are likeable. Fortunately, this section is relatively short.
London is a large book, over eight-hundred pages, but Rutherfurd manages to fill those pages with interesting stories, characters and facts about London. The book does not feel as long as it is, possibly helped by the fact that by the time the reader has finished they have read so many different, although interlinked, storylines.
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