Last week, I read an article in the London Evening Standard that made me smile. It began like this: 'London is the most dynamic city in the world today. In the twenty first century, it has become the most powerful, the most dynamic, the most culturally focused city-state on earth. No other cities come close. Not New York. Not Paris. Not Shanghai. Not Hong Kong. London is already the one true global metropolis, the one true cocksure city-state.' The rest of the article went on like this, a delightfullly chauvinistic ode to London. Yet, putting chauvinism aside, the article does capture some of the essence of London, a bustling, thriving and vibrant city that keeps on expanding. This identity forms the core subject of Edward Rutherfurd's novel, London, which I just finished reading after several weeks. In this ambitious book, Rutherfurd tells the story of London throughout the ages by following the birth, life, and death of over a hundred fictional characters who have collectively incarnated the history of the city, from its early days as a Celtic settlement by the Thames river to modern times, including the Roman conquest, the Saxon times, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, the Globe theatre, the Puritans, the plague, the Great Fire, the Regency, the Industrial Revolution, the First World War and the Blitz, to name but a few episodes. These events are told through dedicated chapters in which characters from half a dozen families live their lives of passion, greed, ambition, and lust in the great city.
Despite its length (over 1,200 pages), the book is an easy read and will appeal to anyone interested in the history of London and England. Effectively, reading this book feels like a walk in the museum of London: in a narrative that flows smoothly, you hear about the daily lives and fortunes of the generations of inhabitants that have shaped London. The most demanding of us may argue that the prose is rather plain, but obviously the author's goal with this book was not to write a literary masterpiece, but rather to entertain his readers in an instructive way, and he achieved that quite successfully.