London, Edward Rutherfurd

Fawcett, 1998 re-edition of 1997 original, 1126 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-449-00263-2

I went through much of James Michener’s back-catalogue a long time ago, but no one else since then has managed to re-create the kind of sweeping epic stories for which he was known.  In novels like Chesapeake, Michener told the story of geographical areas over centuries and generations of the same families.  Places may have been the subject of his books, but the families were his characters and the impact of seeing stories unfold over decades could be profound.

So when I announced my plans to go spend a few days in London, I gladly accepted a recommendation to read Edward Rutherfurd’s brick-sized London.  I could spend my time on City-bound public transportation reading about the place I was exploring.  It made perfect sense: after all, one of my most useful travel tips is “bring the heaviest, densest paperback you can find”.

London certainly weighs in on the heavy side: At more than 1100 dense pages, the paperback has a heft that hints at the history contained therein.  Describing London from 54 BC to 1997, Rutherfurd’s novel begins with maps of the city, and a chart of character names that extends over two thousand years and nearly a dozen families.  The stage is set for an epic.

What we get is more akin to 20 short stories (some of them longer than others) taking place over London’s eventful history.  The families often become more important characters than members of any particular generation, as the haughty and dishonest Silversleeves battle it out with the long-time citizen Doggets, the tenacious Bulls or the swashbuckling Barnickels.  Every fifty pages or so, the narrative stops and another one begins… sometimes years, sometimes centuries after the previous one.  As London grows around the families, we get a sense of the development of the city, learn a few factoids and are enlightened about the reasons things are so.  It all reaches a climax of sorts during World War Two’s Blitz, as a millennia-old treasure comes back to haunt the descendants of those who lost it.

As a fictional tribute to a world-class city, there’s no denying that London meets its goals: It’s a grand-scale epic in the old meaning of the term.  More than a hundred characters throughout London’s lengthy history often lead us back to the chart of who’s who in the chronology.  The amount of historical research that has crafted the novel is astonishing and convincing at once.  It’s an amazing achievement, and yet it could have been just a bit better.

Referring to Michener is useful, in that Michener understood that families became characters in their own right, and through generations, enjoyed dramatic arcs that paid off at the climax of the book.  While Rutherfurd does make use of that principle to create a narrative that spans the short stories of each era (such as the strange and sometimes frustrating changes in fortune for the Doggetts), his family fortunes don’t always unfold in dramatically rewarding fashion, and that’s part of why he doesn’t quite manage to make the ending of the novel resonate as much as it could have.  The Silversleeves, perfect antagonists as they are, essentially disappear from the book’s last third and their sudden reappearance isn’t entirely satisfying.  London’s overall dramatic arc isn’t as gripping as it could have been, and a number of loose threads could have been tightened far more efficiently.

Then there’s the heaviness of Rutherfurd’s prose which may be off-putting to readers who aren’t used to lengthy historical epics.  I will blame planes, trains and busses for not reading every single sentence carefully; nonetheless, few will be faulted for reading chunks of the book diagonally, trying to get to the next fascinating part: London isn’t always interesting, as you would expect from a loose assembly of twenty short stories.

All of this being said, I still keep a very fond memory of reading London on the plane landing at Heathrow, in the Tube, and on the train bringing me back to London from Brighton and (later) Paris.  It tickled my neurons pleasantly to be stuck in a feedback loop where I would read about the sights I was about to see, or just did see, and gain just a bit of extra context by picturing the events of the book taking place around me.  In one amusing case of reality/fiction feedback, I ended up mystified by “Petty France Street” for a few hours until the novel explained why it was named so.  If there’s a better way of reading London, I can’t imagine it.

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