What goes around comes around

January 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm 2 comments

When I said earlier that Edward Rutherford’s epic The Forest didn’t deserve its own post, I was just plain wrong and lumping it rather unfortunately in with other books I read towards the end of 2008. Having now finished the volume, I can say that, more than Rutherford’s other books, this one most certainly deserves its own post. I say this not because The Forest is so far superior to its compatriots, but because this one was so much more unreliable in its quality.

I have without reservation been merrily recommending Edward Rutherford to just about anyone who would listen since the latter half of high school. “Read anything by him,” I would say excitedly, “It will all be brilliant!” While that might well be the case with both London and, perhaps even more truthfully, Sarum, I am very disappointed to report that Mr. Rutherford lost his swing in this particular tome. The Forest tells the story of, simply put, the New Forest located in the south of England. As with all Rutherford novels, this one successfully covers centuries of history by stopping every hundred years or so in various time periods and examining the people who are found there. Another Rutherford trademark is unsurprisingly present in The Forest: he follows five or six select families in the given region as he skips about through time, checks in with their descendants and makes little winky mentions of previous forebears as he goes through time.

This format may sound at best like a tedious exercise in attempting to bring the past to life for the ordinary reader (who cannot really be expected to really feel for someone living in 1614 without personifying 1614 with Alice Albion, for example). However, tedium is simply not a part of the Rutherford formula. Despite the book’s simplistic formula (and Mr. Rutherford unfailingly follows it in every chapter), Mr. Rutherford possesses the unique ability to quickly sum up a time period (quite accurately most of the time), introduce/define some characters and get on with the plot in such a way that the book never lags. At least, that is the goal. And one that he admirably attains in his previous works (the aforementioned Sarum and London among others).

However, he does not truly make it work in this book. The first half of the book is charming and interesting as any other Rutherford novel, but as he enters the seventeenth century, his ability to make it all interesting apparently just deserts him and the reader is dragged through an increasingly uninteresting and distended piece about the Stuarts, the unfair trial of Alice Lisle and Oliver Cromwell. One can easily see that Mr. Rutherford did some research, discovered Alice Lisle and then thought it would be just wonderful if he could incorporate her into his novel, which he did at much detriment to the novel itself. The story of Alice Lisle is quite interesting on its own simply because of the extreme injustice done to poor old Alice, but the whole retelling just comes off as forced and more than a little dull in Mr. Rutherford’s attempts to force his families into the mix. I admit I struggled woefully for weeks through that unending chapter about the seventeenth century and emerged from it liking Mr. Rutherford and his book rather less and hating the Stuarts and Oliver Cromwell about equally as per usual.

That said, Mr. Rutherford does manage an impressive save after the unfortunate “Alice” chapter by bringing the late eighteenth century and a Jane Austen-like chapter into play directly thereafter (“Albion Park”). One of the things that makes Mr. Rutherford’s book so interesting is how his tone changes to match the time period he has entered in every chapter. While there is a calm, descriptive even-handedness pervasive throughout the book, Mr. Rutherford is also very much aware of literary styles of any given time period and relishes in morphing into them a little bit. He disappears almost entirely in Jane Austen for his “Albion Park” chapter and it is a very enjoyable exercise.

The book lags a little bit in the chapters after “Albion Park,” but he never truly loses himself as he did in the seventeenth century. His Victorian section seems a little pointless and plotless (more of a character study and familial check-up than anything) and his tacked-on 1920s and 1980s narratives make you wish the book had just ended in “Albion Park.”

Despite these shortcomings, the book is still an impressive feat of historical research and this is an area Mr. Rutherford clearly loves. I would more readily recommend his other, earlier novels, but this one was good enough. Even if he somehow lost his magic touch to make everything fascinating, the book is still an interesting study in history and how a place changes over time. This may not be enough to tempt most readers into taking on this epic (indeed, I might not have bothered if I had known that it was not Sarum-like in its excellence), but it is a great accomplishment nonetheless.

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Entry filed under: Historical Fiction.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  January 21, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Oh, maybe I had better start with Sarum rather than the Ireland trilogy! Sounds amazing — I’m in awe of his abilities, as relatively substandard as you felt this one is…

    Reply
  • 2. Corey  |  January 21, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Indeed, Sarum was amazing from what I recall. Although there is always the possibility that I was just younger and less critical when I read it, but I really do think it was better. :)

    I haven’t tried any of his Ireland books yet although I bought the first one this past fall so I should probably get on that…

    Reply

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