The story emerges out of the mists of time as nomadic wanderers settle a portion of southwest England in the immediate vicinity of what is now Salisbury. Although it makes leaps in chronology, the narrative follows the history of these inhabitants, tracing their progress, among other ways, through their architectural creations: the ancient barrow tombs and Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain, the Roman camp at Sorviodurum, Old Sarum and then New Sarum, and, in the late Middle Ages, the cathedral, which is still one of the finest in England. Connecting the nineteen chapters is the unfolding saga of five families, some of whom date back to the first settlers, while others are relative newcomers introduced during the Roman and Saxon periods. Even the Normans intermix, as do, later, the American descendants of the families.
Although Rutherfurd’s approach is not new, it is handled with skill, and he interweaves the individual stories of the families with the broader upheavals of English history in such a way as to carry the story along at a good clip. By introducing many of the chapters with historical material, the author keeps his readers abreast of the periods and provides a context for the unfolding tale.
It would be easy to criticize the novel for its skimpy characterization, and it is true that the figures do tend to be two-dimensional rather than well-rounded. This is a novel more about a place than about the individuals who inhabit it, however, and a sense of place is what this novel captures very well. Rutherfurd is most successful when invoking the ambience of each historical epoch, especially a sense of daily life, even if at times the detail clogs the narrative a bit.
In spite of its length and its rather wooden characters, this is still a fascinating novel which by the very scope of its ambitions pulls the reader along, entangling him in the rich tapestry of English history.