Edward Rutherford writes mammoth books where the central character is a place and the people in them are incidental and used to drive the plot across a given time period (usually several thousand years). It is a formula that has worked well and gained critical and popular acclaim. ‘London’ is the third such novel of his I have read; the other two are ‘Sarum’ and ‘The Forest’.
‘London’ contains all of the best and worst elements of those two books. In ‘Sarum’ the characters and their situations are being shaped by real world historical events and integrated into it. In ‘The Forest’ that is less important as we follow families through the generations with real world events are largely in the background. I much prefer the former as it gives the novel more of an authentic feel.
He also skips over too many important events in the first half. I know this is a novel about London but some events would have had an impact on the city. For example, after Julius Caesar’s failed invasion, we skip over Claudius’ succesful invasion and end up in the third century when little is happening. Then it ignores the withdrawal of the legions and the Anglo-Saxon migrations and drops us into the 7th century where again not much is happening after Christianity is well established. We see nothing of the turmoil of the conversion period, the establishment of Lundenwic, or the effects of the Viking attacks. The book limps toward the Norman invasion which is the first good chapter.
Into the second millennium and though the Henry II-Thomas Beckett event is dealt with well, the Black Death and its after effects on society is given little coverage (a stark contrast to Sarum). Instead we get meaningless fair such as “The Whorehouse”, which, though amusing to understand and see how church-run brothels worked in medieval London, does little to advance the plot.
The second half is better with more integration. Real improvement is seen in “God’s Fire” which deals with the beginning of the Stuart era, the Civil War and Restoration. The most impressive chapter centres around the design and building of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Rutherford writes with such passion that this is easily the best chapter, if only as much care had been put into other chapters, this would have superseded ‘Sarum’ as my favourite work by this author. Then we feed through the world wars, including the blitz and to 1997 (date of publication of the book) with a short epilogue. I am assuming that the novel was finished and published before the two major events of that year: the election of Tony Blair and the death of Princess Diana. A shame almost that he did not hold off long enough to write a chapter on the millennium celebrations at The Dome to bring it full circle.
Overall this book is a slog and though better than ‘The Forest’ it is not as good as ‘Sarum’ I will probably read another Rutherford but only if a suitable subject comes up. To date, his other written work is ‘Russka’, ‘New York’, ‘Dublin’ and ‘Ireland’.