New York by Edward Rutherfurd

Once a wild country inhabited by local tribes, New York slowly grew to become the economic powerhouse of the world. First, its wealth came from fur trappers taking advantage of the Hudson River to transport beaver pelts from Canada. Then its closeness to Europe and safe harbour made it the perfect link between London and the New World. Finally, the descendants of those early settlers used their endless wealth to form banks and counting houses that would hold the fate of nations in their hands.

Edward Rutherfurd’s vast novel tells this and many other stories. He has developed a literary niche in which he takes a particular place and then tells its story over centuries, focusing on members of different families all the while. With his straightforward zippy style, the story hurtles along with each chapter enriched by plenty of local detail.

In the beginning, Manna Hata simply meant ‘the island’ in one of the original Indian languages. The history of the city is very much like a place that is isolated from the successive crises that hit the rest of America. For example, it was barely touched by the American War of Independence and the US Civil War, being far from the fighting in each case. During the War of 1812, the British burnt Washington DC to the ground, but New York simply grew richer while its merchants supplied the troops.

For a book that is so long (well over 1,000 pages in dead-wood version), Rutherfurd’s story actually leaves the reader wanting more. He introduces new characters with George RR Martin-esque rapidity and each time, they are intriguing, solid individuals.

One of the most enjoyable sections is the very beginning, where Dutchman Dirk Van Dyke is maintaining two families at the same time: a respectable European household at the toe of Manhattan and a second Indian one, in the wilderness upcountry. His difficulties trying to do right both by his daughter Pale Feather and his other family in the then ‘New Amsterdam’ bring the early life of the nascent city into real, messy, difficult life.

Although his focus is on the white Anglo-Saxon Master family, Rutherfurd also showcases the lives of the other inhabitants of the city. The struggles of the African-Americans in particular is excruciating as their fortunes flutter from being freedmen to slaves, a legal status that can be undermined in an instant just by crossing state lines.

Later we counter waves of other immigrants: Irish, Jewish, Italian and Puerto Rican, each with their own contribution to make to the life of the city. Meanwhile, the Master family rolls on, constantly profiting from whatever disaster may strike lesser mortals.

New York never lapses into cliché. There are some very crafty tales in the most well-known sections of history, such as the Wall Street Crash. There are some Agatha Christie-esque twists throughout that keep you in the dark until the moment of revelation, whereupon you start to wonder why you never saw the twist coming.

New York is a great read for a long flight to or from the Big Apple (a nickname that first appeared suprisingly late in the city’s history) or for anyone wanting to revisit their holidays in this extraordinary outpost that grew from a few shacks at the end of the river to the epicentre of all-consuming capitalism.

Best of all, published back in 2009, it doesn’t mention Trump once.