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Edward Rutherfurd Extraordinary Author

According to Wikipedia, “Edward Rutherfurd is a pen name for Francis Edward Wintle (born 1948 in Salisbury, England). He is best known as a writer of epic historical novels which span long periods of history but are set in particular places. His debut novel “Sarum” set the pattern for his work with a ten-thousand-year storyline.”

Ten-thousand-year? Yes, and he does justice to these epic pieces of fact-and-fiction. He is not the only writer to indulge in a long work based in fact using fictional characters to move the action forward (or sometimes, leaping about) in time. James Michener’s work was similar, and I happened to be reading Hawaii while traveling to that state, and was able to actually see the places about which he wrote.

Where Michener’s style, though sweeping, is perhaps more romantic and socially conscious than Rutherfurd’s, Rutherfurd also employs the technique of following a set of families through a period of time, tracing their lives, loves, fortunes and failures over an extraordinary period of time.

I first read The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga when developing an interest in my Celtic roots. It was an amazing trip through Irish fact, fiction, and legend, but I learned an important thing that would serve me well in further Rutherfurd reading: be prepared to be engrossed, and focus. While they are works of fiction, his are not easy reads. You will be whipsawed from one family line to another as they interact, drop out of sight, or even hand the storyline off for a generation or two. And to say “storyline” is to assume there is a linear through-line. Not so.

Rutherfurd’s “story” is the story of the place, as seen through the eyes of carefully selected families, and individuals within those families. As noted, you must be prepared to pay attention. Covering 900 to ten-thousand years, even if the book is 800 pages long, will mean you will be racing through time, even if within the confines of a single city (London, or Paris) or among a group of people, or even, as with the book I’m part way through now (The Forest), within the confines of a plot of land.

Edward Rutherfurd

Aside from the enormity of the timeframe, and the plethora of characters, Rutherfurd adopts a variety of voices, of necessity, within each lengthy chapter. In an early chapter of The Forest, he even writes from the point of view of a mother deer and her offspring as they outrace hunters, both legal and poachers. Generally, though, you’ll inhabit the viewpoint of one of the characters for a chapter (and be advised, a “chapter” is very, very long – I like to promise myself at least a chapter a day/night in any book, and usually more; with this book I have to focus intently; putting it down even for a short spell isn’t wise as the plots are thick enough it’s easy to lose your way), or perhaps a couple of character’s play a large part with a variety of secondary roles.

About his style, I’d stake Rutherfurd roughly 60% toward literary fiction, but his style isn’t poetic or self-consciously entertaining. I sometimes get the feeling he’s writing fiction merely because while the details, clothing, customs, and sophistication of his characters are genuine historically, he can’t really claim that the things he has them do and say are “real.” At the same time, I wouldn’t call him a bad or clumsy writer – more that if he had to pick either history or fiction, he’d opt for history. I’d love an opportunity to ask him!

Though you might pick up any of his novels with a similar expectation, The Forest covers the period from 1099 (shortly after the Norman invasion) to roughly the present and is set in the New Forest, a real area in southern England. And one last recommendation: some writers are meant for the beach or a hammock on a long summer evening. Rutherfurd goes well with a fire and the early dark of winter.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.