Thursday, January 07, 2010

“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd (Century)


The Epic Tale of a Great City

From the epic, empty grandeur of the New World to the skyscrapers of the sleepless Big Apple; from the lives of the long-forgotten to frantic pace of today’s inhabitants, New York is a novel on considerable scope and ambition.

The novel begins when New York was ‘New Amsterdam’: a tiny Native American fishing village, populated by Dutch traders, hoping to make their fortunes from the expansive wilderness of the New World, selling beaver skins to the fashion houses of Europe (and making a fortune off the trade). British settlers and merchants followed, with their aristocratic governors, different perspectives, different religion, and a good deal of unpopular taxation. Rebellion, war, the burning of the city (twice), and the birth of the American Nation came next.

As Rutherfurd recounts the intertwining fates and lives of a select cast of characters rich and poor, black and white, native born and immigrant (the Master family being the main focus, the rest of the cast drawn from their immediate orbit), the author brings to life the momentous events that shaped New York city and America. Throughout, we are presented with cameo appearances by historical figures ranging from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Babe Ruth.

Every major event of American and New York history is covered, at least in passing: the troubled British rule, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the rise of Tammany Hall, the Mass Immigration of the early 20th Century, the Great Depression, 9/11, the Rise of Wall Street, and more. Best of all, Rutherfurd has brought to life the perspectives, biases, and conflicts of the times perfectly – from slavery to freedom of religion in the early centuries, to the debates of a new nation, and on into the 21st Century (right up to 2009).

This is quite a difficult book to review. To begin with, the scope is massive. Four centuries worth of history, distilled and portrayed through the eyes of a select few characters, is an ambitious undertaking. For the most part, Rutherfurd has succeeded in writing an engaging, excellent novel – it reads like the best history book you’ve ever read, only slightly thin on the details.

Like a history book, you don’t really need to start at the beginning if you don’t want to. I’m sure, if you weren’t interested in pre-Revolution New York, you could just dive in after the British have been kicked out and America is a self-ruled nation. That would, however, result in you cutting out a third of the book: this is perhaps my biggest complaint about the novel – it takes a little while to get going and, considering the fact that not a huge amount happened in the first couple of centuries, Rutherfurd does take a long time to bring us to the founding of the United States and the events that are perhaps most interesting. That is not to say, however, that the early-years of New York are not interesting, for it really is, but I imagine what most people are interested in are the events that happen in the late-18th Century and beyond. It is for this reason that the novel, perhaps, would have worked better as two books, in the same way that James Clavell broke his story of Hong Kong into two novels: the superb Tai-Pan and Noble House.

Many chapters feel like vignettes (certainly at the beginning), varying greatly in length. This is a good way of approaching the task, but it has affected the flow of the novel – the jumps forward in time can occasionally come across as a little jarring, as Rutherfurd leaps forward to keep the history moving and characters you’ve become invested in suddenly disappear or are killed off in a simple sentence or short paragraph – it’s almost an aside for James Master, for example.

The author’s style is accessible, his prose are fluid and quickly-paced. The cameos don’t feel forced, and you get the sense that he has been careful to research the real characters of the historical giants he features – Washington’s angst and depression during the Revolutionary War, for example, is brought across without diminishing the author’s clear admiration of him.

In New York, Rutherfurd details the many rises and falls of a city that, over four centuries, has evolved from a tiny fishing village to the envy of the world. This is an epic novel, one that drew me in and had me pretty much hooked throughout.

Do put aside quite some time for it, however. While not a quick read, it is certainly a very satisfying one.


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