DATE: Wednesday, July 16, 1997 TAG: 9707160044 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E4 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BY BARBARA SPIGEL LENGTH: 69 lines
``LONDON'' IS the third historical blockbuster by Edward Rutherfurd. After ``Sarum,'' his chronicle of the English city of Salisbury, came ``Russka,'' a long history of Russia. In ``London'' he blends characters, both real and fictional, into the historical events that are identified with the city.
Such a synthesis can be a risky undertaking, difficult to pull off, particularly with a story that covers 2,000 years. But, with a few missteps, Rutherfurd does indeed pull it off.
Rutherfurd maintains that `` `London' is, first and foremost, a novel.'' This is true up to a point: The story line tracks the lives of six fictional families from pre-Roman times to the present. But ``London'' is primarily an elegant history in which the imaginary characters are often in danger of taking second place to the political, social and economic factors that shape their lives.
``London'' begins and ends on the banks of the river Thames, for centuries London's main highway and the reason the city was able to develop from a trading post to a world financial center. Early city inhabitants included Celts, Danes, Druids, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and French, but it wasn't until Chaucer's time that the English people clearly appeared as a racial and cultural unit.
It is at this time that Rutherfurd's plot becomes defined and the fictional characters an integral part of events. The reader is introduced to some of the stuff for which London was, and is, famous: crackpot royals, social rivalries and political ambitions sacrificed to juicy private indiscretions.
During the 16th and 17th centuries London was ruled by merchant adventurers. Rutherfurd describes city life in detail: Money markets develop to finance colonialism and enterprises such as the Virginia Company organize to create a permanent market for English goods. Britain's foreign policy was rooted in commercial considerations, and the newly rich could no longer take refuge in the delusion that money is the answer to all life's problems.
As London's economy expanded and degenerated into the greed and brutality of 19th century imperialism, some of Rutherfurd's characters, descendants of the early river folk, assume the same unpleasant characteristics of rapacity and opportunism. As disease and poverty become rampant in an overcrowded city, family feuds become vicious, fortunes rise and fall and children are switched at birth. For some, marriages are made for social advantage; for others, deplorable living conditions and disease lead to suffering and early death.
Rutherfurd spares no segment of society as he demonstrates how London was trying to adapt itself to the demands of the Industrial Revolution and cope with a huge urban proletariat that by 1851 had become an established part of British society.
In the book's last chapter Rutherfurd describes what has happened over time: ``Each year, each age, leaves something. It gets compressed, of course, it disappears under the surface, but just a little of all that human life remains. A Roman tile, a coin, a clay pipe from Shakespeare's time.''
This is a perfect description of his novel: ``layers of compressed time.'' With confidence and skill, Rutherfurd has separated those layers and produced a remarkable story of a great city. Once or twice the social, political and economic factors overshadow the fictional families, but that is almost inevitable when even the best fiction comes up against such an impressive spectrum of historical fact. MEMO: Barbara Spigel is a writer who lives in Norfolk. ILLUSTRATION: Graphic
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Crown. 829 pp.
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