genre: historical fiction
I'm not actually sure how one reviews such a book as Sarum. The first thing that you must know is that it is 912 pages. That's 912 pages all written about a core group of families that live in a small river valley in the south of England. This is the England of Stonehenge and the Avon river, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral. Our story begins in prehistoric times as ancient peoples made their way from the north to the warmer south. As the centuries go by, the groups of people intertwine - they leave and return, they have specific characteristics that we as readers know have been handed down and which helps to differentiate the various ancestral lines.
Sarum: the Novel is really two different things. It is a giant group of short stories that give you a wonderful taste of what life might have been like, what pleasures there might have been and what struggles people may have been faced with during many different of seasons of British history.
This book is also a crash course in British military, political, and social history. As the characters work through their own lives, we learn all about the kings and the economics and the rise and fall of different groups of people - Saxons, Romans and the Normans. We get a solid education in cathedral building and for the rest of the book the cathedral in Salisbury is a constant feature in the lives of the townspeople. We see how fortunes were made and lost, how wars divided families, how industries grew and thrived and disappeared.
While the writing wasn't astonishing or particularly lyrical, it moved right along and did a wonderful job of making each time feel distinct and real. The author took time to make sure the background was laid out in a way the flowed well with the story and didn't feel like a time out from the narrative the way it could have. I feel so connected to this area now - I have such a better sense of how deep and rich a history lies between the five rivers. Sometimes the "family characteristics" piece felt a bit too obvious, bordering on cheesy, but I mostly appreciated it. I had to refer to the family trees at the front all the time because I liked keeping the families straight in my head. I think one of the things that really contributed to the two months it took me to read it is the fact that we don't have one set of characters to carry us through the narrative. By its very nature, this books is filled with dozens, maybe hundreds of characters and so the plot itself isn't ever really riveting - I had to keep reading for the book's sake instead of from a desire to know what happens, if that makes sense.
Yep, it's long. I thought Vanity Fair was long and this was 200 pages longer. Even Anna Karenina is shorter! It took me a REALLY long time to read it, but I chose it and stuck with it because my beloved sister has moved to this part of the world and as she has told me about the places she is visiting and learning about, I realized how ignorant I was about much of British history. The Roman part was particularly informative and interesting as well as the creation of Stonehenge. Yes, I could've just read a history book - but this was definitely more fun.