By Edward Rutherfurd
829 pp., 25.95
'London" is less a novel than a historical re-creation, a sort of literary Madame Tussaud's, where each historical mise en scene is peopled with a set of actors dressed up in period costume.
The story follows successive generations of eight families whose destinies intertwine throughout London's history from the Roman invasion to the Blitz. Edward Rutherfurd whisksthe reader, sometimes too quickly, from one time period to the next. But if the characters in each set piece are a little less lifelike than one might hope, the scenery and costumes are great.
Through the first half of the book, the most impressive story is that of the slow erection of the great institutions of the city, both those made of stone, wood, and brick and those, ultimately more enduring, made only of the imaginations of men and solidified as tradition.
We watch as the walls of the Tower of London rise up stone by stone while the administration of the monarchy becomes more bureaucratized, and the balance of power between feistily independent city and autocratic ruler seesaws back and forth. The guildhalls, London Bridge, the docks, the Bank of London and the stock exchange are the successive physical foundations of the city's rise to a premier position in world trade.
While the characters are not emotionally fulfilling, this is a great novel for anyone who loves London. It gives an impressive sense of the power of place and memory. The historical maps at the front of the book only begin to evoke that sense, leaving one wishing that there were more of them and that they were detailed enough to follow Rutherfurd's romp through London's history.
However, the tales into which Rutherfurd weaves this grand narrative of the city's evolution are a bit thin. Each of the London families he traces through time represent some constant aspect of the grand mix of the city: The web-fingered Dogget always reveals the Celtic communion with the water; The flame-haired Barnikel characterizes Viking energy; The long-nosed Silversleeves's shows deviousness, whether in trade, the church, or court.
This strategy makes the individuality of each character secondary to the type, and the characters too often come off as wooden. Furthermore, especially in the early chapters, the story line jumps rather abruptly from century to century. It's a lot like trying to watch television when someone else has the remote, skipping to a new program just when you're getting into the old one.
The novel comes into its stride in the Tudor era, where the story lines become a bit more rich, the characters more fully developed. Here the novel more vividly presents the human face of history: the way, for example, Henry VIII's schism with the Roman Catholic Church might have torn apart a family of devout believers, or how the earthy Elizabethan theatre and defiant Puritan plainness represent two sides of the city's soul, or the way London's relationship with the Thames has changed over the millennia as seen through the eyes of generations of watermen.
The story line includes the origins of almost every major place name in the city as the city seems to grow like a living organism. We watch the urban landscape change. We also see how the living memory of its inhabitants shapes that landscape.
* Barbara Petzen is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.