Saturday, 30 June 2012
Review: Dublin by Edward Rutherford
On one level, Edward Rutherfurd’s Dublin succeeds as a collection of well-executed, if somewhat conventional narratives, linked together slightly tenuously by the inter-generational connections between the characters. On another level it raises some really challenging questions about how we view history.
First the stories. The book, like Rutherfurd’s other works, follows an episodic structure. Each section is set in a different time period of Dublin’s history, from the pre-Christian era through to the Reformation. The same family’s appear in each episode to give a further sense of continuity, but other than that each episode is almost completely distinct. As mentioned, the stories themselves rarely depart from very conventional plotlines. We have star-crossed lovers, ongoing mistakenly-held grudges, treachery, smuggling and more. Each episode is granted only a couple of hundred pages and increasingly they encompass a wide range of characters, so logistical limitations are clearly a factor in the complexity of plotlines.
Nonetheless these simple stories succeed in holding a reader’s attention for over 800 pages. Partly this is the historical dimension of the novel, however it is equally due to the very successful characterisation that carries on throughout the novel. Rutherfurd has a gift for creating believable characters in the space of just a few pages, meaning that for all the stories’ simplicity, the reader still feels involved. This characterisation, as in Rutherfurd’s other works, is especially strong when an episode stretches over many years: the characters which are most sympathetic are those that we see as children, and then follow as their life shapes them into what they become. In Dublin this tends to be the almost invariably attractive female characters, developing from hopeful adolescents into more worldly women.
The stories are thus strong, but what marks Rutherfurd out has always been the historical dimension to his novels. Historical fiction is a very common genre at the moment, but Rutherfurd separates himself from his peers by his pan-historical focus on one location. Here we see the ancient Irish farmstead of Dubh Linn develop into the Viking port of Dyflin, before finally morphing into the English city of Dublin. If there is one weakness of this novel compared to Rutherfurd’s other works, it is that the story stops 500 years ago: there is no attempt to build continuity up to the present day. This is resolved by the sequel: Ireland: Awakening, but in doing so obviously leaves this first novel incomplete.
Rutherfurd is especially good at bringing to life genuine historical characters. At times this can verge on simply name-dropping (in New York one of the characters happens to gratuitously mention he’s met a young English sailor, by the name of Horatio Nelson), however Dublin has the very different task of bringing to life characters of an almost mythological status, in particular St Patrick and Brian Boru. With the scarce historical evidence for these men’s lives, let alone personalities, Rutherfurd seizes the opportunity to create these characters anew. St Patrick comes through as one of the few genuinely religious characters in a book (and indeed a country) that is dominated by matters of religion-as-politics, while Boru is rendered incredibly sympathetic, even as he is extrapolated from his historical position as a legendary king.
The most interesting question raised by the novel, and indeed from all historical fiction, is that of the very nature of studying history. It is almost uncertainly untrue that (SPOILER ALERT) the successful English occupation of Dublin was accomplished due to one Irish girl’s illicit relationship with a treacherous English soldier, and as such that particular episode in the book would have no place in a typical historical textbook. However it is equally evident that, especially for older periods, it is the experiences of the normal men and women that have totally disappeared from the historical record, leaving only wars and dates and kings. We like to pretend (at least in history syllabuses) that history is governed by prevailing socio-economic trends. However in practice those trends consist of the lives of ordinary people that probably had a lot in common with us today.
If we told the story of our lives we might flatter ourselves into thinking it would make a similar read to a novel such as this: individual characters interacting, making mistakes and living and dying with the consequences. But in 500 years time, or 1500 years time, will that be what the history textbooks on the turn of the third millennium will focus on? Just as somewhere in those narratives of ‘battles over dwindling resources’ in a ‘proto-nuclear age’ will be the lives of all of us, and it is this that is captured in any good piece of historical fiction. Dublin probably didn’t fall because of Fionnula Ui Fergusa, but you never know...