A novel on the way we interpret events to suit our purpose. The protagonists are four people giving evidence in a murder in 17th century England. One blames the crime on too much authority, another on the lack of it. A look at the controversies of the day, from medical experiments to religious freethinking.
Like The Name of the Rose, this is one whodunit in which the principal mystery is the nature of truth itself. Along the way, Pears displays a keen eye for period details as diverse as the early days of medicine, the convoluted politics of the English Civil War, and the newfangled fashion for wigs. Yet Pears never loses sight of his characters, who manage to be both utterly authentic denizens of the 17th century and utterly authentic human beings. As a mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost is entertainment of the most intelligent sort; as a novel of ideas, it proves equally satisfying.
The story is told in 4 parts by 4 different narrators. The first, a Venetian gentleman and medical student, the next, a young man who wants to clear his father's name of treason, the next a cryptographer and professor, and the last narrator, the one who ties the whole story together, an archivist and quiet little Oxford researcher. And all while weaving the events of 17th century politics, medicine, religion, class structure, and gender roles into the story.
It sounds like this would be a heavy read, but it wasn't. I was mesmerized by the story and found myself thinking about it after I put the book down. I found myself doubting that the final narrator would be able to tie up all these loose ends. But at every stage, I loved how the next narrator would call into doubt the previous one(s) and how he would add his own interpretation. I admit that I was completely surprised by some of the revelations, and even after I learned the next 'truth', I went back over the rest of the story, looking for any clues that I might have missed. I loved the way each of the narrators had his own distinct voice, his own history.
I am really glad I picked this one up. It's size is pretty intimidating, but I went through it quickly. Highly recommended.
And now, I'm wondering if I want to start or look for another mini-challenge - books through time. I learned so much about 17th century England - the quick little reference to the fastidiousness of the character who insists on quarterly baths, the nonchalance with which lice on the sheets are regarded, the horrible justice system and jail conditions, the low status of any woman, regardless of her intelligence or family status. Just great.
This novel could almost be a propaganda tool for feminism: the treatment of soul-less women - primarily the Blundys, by an arrogant establishment is excruciating. Sarah is defenceless, utterly defenceless, a disposable pawn in a man's world. But Pears is not Germaine Greer: there are tender men here, perhaps even a tender and not altogether masculine deity, rising above the bitter myopic prejudices of a man's world. Still: the enigmatic Cola and the austere and remote Woods show compassion, and they are not alone. The men indeed are all pawns in a game of fate, and while it may be expedient that one woman should die for the people, as Herod saw, there are few pure souls.
So the book becomes powerfully christological, too, even if the christology is in reality christa-ology, and far from orthodox. Pears' mastery of perspective and of character is simply stunning, generating 'voice' and perspective in the narratives of his four tellers, exposing madness, self-righteousness, and a myriad other human flaws and strengths, exposing even the uneasy relationship between spiritual search and political machination, and allowing space at last, in a flawed human being, for costly and tender but ambivalent love.
This comes closer than I care to admit to a desert island book. But it's only a historical mystery, after all. If the end is contrived it is so only because there needed to be some in-breaking of hope, and for that I thank, if not God, then certainly Pears. Gunther Grass made clear years ago that an author is a god. Or maybe even a dour but sane narrator is religiously deluded and the wistful hope that permeates the tragedy is a delusion? Who knows? This is a book to read and re-read, all 700 pages, and to savour every sentence.
Iain Pears digs deep into religion and science in this compelling period mystery set in Oxford, England in 1663. An Instance of the Fingerpost is the kind of lengthy, slow burn of a book that reveals itself only to the most observant and committed of readers, but with an explosive payoff that's well worth the wait. The book is lengthy, and the time period obscure for most contemporary readers, so be ready to jump in with a strong stomach and a clear mind.
The driving force of every mystery is to figure out what really happened. In An Instance of the Fingerpost that discovery is no easy feat. A murder has been committed, and someone, Sarah Blundy, is eventually accused, convicted, and executed. Pears gives us four different narrators, each with their own account of what took place, and it's up to us to weed out the delicate thread of truth from the mishmash of half-truths, contradictions, and misdirection.
Each chapter starts off with epigraphs taken from Francis Bacon's opus, Novum Organum Scientarum. The epigraphs serve as thematic signposts to hammer home the flawed thinking at work in each account:
- Idols of the Market (Marco da Cola - His account shows how language and description can color the facts; outright deception)
- Idols of the Cavern (Jack Prescott - His story shows how personal obsession, personal demons, and self-delusion can distort the truth; complete unreliability)
- Idols of the Theater (John Wallis - His version shows how the most precise, logical and science-based reasoning can still lead to the wrong conclusion; fallacies)
- Idols of the Tribe (Anthony Wood - His testimony reveals the supposedly inviolable explanation of what really happened, but it is also a greater meditation on the shaky foundations of truth in general).
The big reveals depend critically on the sequence of those accounts, as each narrator reveals new information that purposefully illuminates or obfuscates what has been said before. In other words, the four narrators each have had access to the testimony told before them: Prescott has read Cola's account when he gives his; Wallis has read Prescott's and Cola's; and Wood has read all three. This makes it easy to compare events and catch similarities and differences, though you may have to flip back and forth between chapters to compare versions.
Structurally the book's framework seems straightforward enough. The Rashomon-style whodunit is a common enough trope in literature, especially in mysteries, as is the use of unreliable narrators. But what makes the book so much more entertaining to read is that it's set solidly in England's Restoration period, one of the more interesting period settings I've encountered. Forget Game of Thrones, people! This is the real deal when it comes to vicious power struggles, political intrigue, and social unrest. I had to brush up on my English history as I was reading this. Not a necessary thing to do but it makes for a richer reading experience to have some basic knowledge of the historical figures who show up, and the context of the times to get a sense of what's at stake (clue: a sh*t-load). As I understand it, a Civil War has just come to a close. Oliver Cromwell, the rebel and "Lord Protector" is dead, his cronies vanquished. Charles II is back on the throne and the monarchy returned to power. But Restoration England is still a dangerously divided place with bitter hatreds and prejudices everywhere. There are the Royalists and Protestants on one side, pitted against everyone from radicals and Quakers, to Anabaptists and Catholics.
It is in this political moshpit that Pears sets up the murder, and so you can expect that the cast of characters to be embroiled in the various plots, schemes, and rivalries that reflect the precariousness of those post-Restoration years. Pears uses this real-life tumult to corrosive effect, not only to set the stage and tone but also to drive the plot. By the end of the last account, we see just how far up the chain a simple case of murder in the small town of Oxford goes, the ramifications of which reach as far up as the king himself.
This book reminded me so much of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and I wouldn't be surprised if Catton got a lot of her inspiration from Pears's book. On the surface, both novels explore a specific event through the viewpoints of various witnesses. But the deeper commonality is the exploration of the mystical; Catton takes her structure from the position of the stars, and hence that book's abstract, astrological framework; Pears draws more directly from the philosophy of logic, specifically Francis Bacon, though he also touches on mysticism and religion.
In fact, there is a strong religious/spiritual fixation in Pears's book. Key characters seem to be Christian figures or symbols:
- Sarah Blundy is obviously the Messiah figure. The various conspiracies and special interests that lead to her conviction makes her the 'sacrificial lamb' and the botched execution is her 'resurrection'; she is also depicted as a healer and visionary with special powers. Even her birth is similar to the Christ birth as her relation to Ned Blundy, her father, is called into question in the Wood account.
- Wallis is the Pontius Pilate figure; he knows that Sarah is innocent and still allows her to be taken to the gallows anyway because her death ensures a sense of order and justice in his mind.
- Prescott is probably the Judas figure as he betrays both Sarah and Grove and sets up a kind of murder-execution with the lies he tells and spreads.
- Wood is … well, I'm not sure who Wood would be. Keeping with the Christian framework, Wood is probably Peter, the rock of the church, or another apostle. Wood is the only one who truly loves and venerates Sarah in the book.
What does that say about Pears's stance on religion to include these Christian tropes in a book that examines the nature of truth? I wonder...
Overall, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a richly satisfying book. It's a heavy book—and I don't mean just physically. The historical realism of the setting—the oppressive attitudes of the time (especially toward women), the squalor, disease, early experiments in medicine are rendered in visceral, gross-out detail—is placed jarringly alongside weighty explorations of the Truth. You get the full spectrum in this book, from the gutter to the celestial. When I finished it, I literally sat back and stared at the wall for a few seconds. It's a book told in layers upon layers of deception, with Pears ever so slowly peeling back those layers, until we're finally left with the truth at the end…or are we? Well, I'd like to think so.
Nor does the style of Pears' opening chapter bode well: while, granted, he is adopting the literary style of a foppish seventeenth century Italian, that style is long-winded and flat: For example, this is the second sentence in the whole book: "I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity". Goodness me. Can this carry on? I found myself immediately checking how many pages there were in the book (698) and wondering whether proceeding was wise.
Well, I did go on, and am thoroughly glad I did. Pears' style settles down quickly - it's still deliberately pompous, but that's part of the charm, and also the key to the extraordinary characterisation.
The novel takes the form of four very different accounts of the same set of events surrounding a death, a trial, and some seemingly unrelated political intrigue. Each of the four narrators is brilliantly rendered, his beliefs, prejudices, conceptions and misconceptions woven ever-so-subtly in to the text of the account. There is no definitive version of the story, - each narrator makes obvious blunders in his analysis - which makes the novel curiously post-modern, given that it's set in 1663.
Almost all the characters are drawn from history, as to an extent is the plot, and there are any number of in-jokes and esoteric references which would make this book worth rereading - as would the fact that the plot is thoroughly Byzantine - I feel certain I have missed half of what was going on just through not being able to keep up.
Pears writes playfully and enjoys teasing his reader - he has his final narrator remark, with no small irony intended re his own position, I'm sure, "the activities of the long-since dead became my greatest consolation....Being so ill at ease with my own times, I seek refuge in the past...".
Everything goes a bit, er, pear-shaped at the very death, at which point Pears needs to manufacture an unsatisfactory quasi-spiritual explanation for one of the characters, and in the end he can only finally tie up the loose end by dropping the proverbial ten-ton weight on that character and sending her off on a ship to Massachusetts. But otherwise an extremely, learned, delightful book.
The year is 1663 Oliver Cromwell is dead and the king has newly been restored to an uncertain throne. It is a time of witch hunts and conspiracies but it is also the dawn of the scientific Enlightenment.
A pretty obnoxious Oxford don has been murdered and an innocent young woman is arrested for his killing. Four very different voices tell the story from their own standpoint in separate testimonies. Each are in some way culpable in the events that follow. First is Marco da Cola, who portrays himself as a mere gentleman of Venice visiting England for the first time on family business. Next is Jack Prescott, a student at the university obsessed with clearing his father's name from a charge of treason. Third is Dr. Wallis, mathematician and code-breaker, a man for whom the whole world throbs with conspiracy and intrigue. Last is the historian Anthony Wood, a mousy and passionate man whose story provides the key with which the book's mysteries, so carefully established, are finally solved. Many of the more peripheral characters within are lifted from history and as such whose names will be familiar to the reader.
Pears has obviously steeped himself in the period, so that his characters, in their lives and confessions, embody its rich contradictions, its entwining of superstition with the spirit of new learning, of religion with politics, of politics with violence as such it all feels very authentic.
At this point I should confess that I am not a great reader of detective fiction but I am a fan of history in particular social history. However, the don's murder is largely peripheral to the over-riding theme of this novel. In fact the don was generally unliked and as such will not be missed. Rather it is a catalyst to a greater crime.
There are few women in this novel. One of them,Sarah Blundy, and her treatment by men, is the real centre of this tale. She is feisty and the book's most notable victim. Yet it is her humanity that provides the book's warmth.
My copy of this novel is just shy of 700 pages long and the plot is more tortoise than hare. The painstaking attention to detail sometimes stifles rather than aids the flow of it. On top of which at least two of the four narrators are men hard to like or care about. In fact it was not the final narrator began to tell his side of the story that I felt that it had really grabbed me and probably not until about the final 160 pages that I found myself being moved. In fact the mousiest narrator is in many respects the boldest. Don't get me wrong I found this a worthwhile read not least because even at the very end of it the reader is left unsure who committed the original murder.
Iain Pears' entertaining and long tale benefits from his work as art historian, consultant and journalist. Using his experience he creates a compelling and intelligently written mystery, comprising a search for real truth, precise and accurate in every word. Against this backdrop of English Restoration, Pears has woven a wonderful story of darkness and shadows. A must for anyone who likes good literature mixed with history and an exciting plot. Told from multiple points of view and incorporating many actual historical figures, the book examines the difficulty of ascertaining the truth while offering a carefully reconstructed picture of life in the seventeenth century.
The story is divided into four sections. In the first, Venetian scholar and traveler Marco da Cola offers his version of the events surrounding the murder of Oxford Fellow Robert Grove. Opinionated, influential Dr. Robert Grove is poisoned with arsenic in his New College lodgings. A missing signet ring leads his colleagues to his former servant (and rumored strumpet). The child of religious radicals, Sarah falls under suspicion when it is learned that Grove has recently fired her after rumors of an affair between them began circulating in Oxford. She is swiftly brought to trial, confesses and is promptly hanged--and dissected by enthusiastic physician Richard Lower. But the crime, evidently so simple in its events, is presented through the distorting lenses of four narrators whose obsessions place it in dramatically different contexts. Much of the evidence against Sarah is provided by Jack Prestcott, a young man determined to clear his father’s name of treason charges and also the narrator of the book’s second section. The third narrator, Dr. John Wallis, mathematician and divine, believes Sarah to be instrumental in anti-government plots, while Anthony Wood, an historian and the book’s fourth narrator, loves her.
In the brilliantly illuminated world in which medical experiments, religious and political debates between Roundheads and Royalists, and the founding of the Royal Society bring debates about the nature of science, history, religion, and authority into a focus whose sharpness has a special urgency for our own time, each of these narrators has his own slashingly conflicting claims to make. But it's not until the final narrator, burrowing historian Anthony Wood, weighs in to judge among the sharply competing visions of the earlier narrators that Pears produces his most memorable surprises, or unveils his deepest mysteries. Self-interest, political expediency, and the social climate of the times all play a part in Sarah’s fate, with Pears’ startling conclusion placing the story’s final assessment in the hands of his readers. I would highly recommend it for those who enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
This is a fat, fat historical novel. Well done--a fine author--I do not read mysteries and this may well be my first. My only complaint is that in the middle it dragged and dragged and dragged. I am not the type of person to not finish a book I start, so I forced myself to keep reading. And the payoff was huge--the pace picks up and things get REALLY interesting about 3/4 of the way through. So if you can make it about 1/3 of the way at least, hang in there. Don't skip chunks of it or you'll have no clue what's going on by the end--but it's definitely worth the wait.
A very dear person suggested I read this book, and he was also the one who suggested I read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I am mercilessly teasing him now that every novel he suggests I read: 1) is enormously thick, and 2) has at least one scene of scientific dog-torturing. I can't stand that--even the implication of it--but it was easy enough to skip and nowhere near as descriptive as Stephenson's scenes.
A good read--I won't reread it, probably, but parts of this story will definitely stick with me. By the fourth narrator's story, the author brought me to tears at least once. So, there's my review.
Four "memoirs" written by four of the main characters. All are connected by the same figures and also by the murder of an Oxford don and the execution of a young woman. Each narration is given by a separate character: an Italian medical student; a young man attempting to restore his father's good name; a cryptographer; and an archivist/antiquarian. None of these people is completely reliable; each tells the story as he sees it, often concealing events or distorting or even lying. The first section lays out the story, especially investigation of the murder, then the others tell different points of view and emphasizes what seems important to the narrator. After the first section, the story sagged until half way through Part Three and from there on to the end, it was unputdownable. Clues appeared all through but only the sharpest reader would pick them up. Twists and turns in Part Four ["Instance of the fingerpost" = Reliable witness] were logical but incredible and amazing!
I was completely immersed in the England of that period and of Cromwellian England before it--politics and religious bigotry. Recommended.
Helen Bowers highly recommended this to me. I had not known Pears before, but bought the book and did enjoy it. It is of the genre that I think is known as "literary mystery", and one that I enjoy very much. This story is set in England, more specifically Oxford, in the 1600s when Charles II was on the throne and England was still recovering from the civil wars and Oliver Cromwell. The simple story line involves the murder of a certain Dr.Groves at Oxford, and the hanging of woman, Sarah Blundy, for the crime. But it is far more complex than just that! Pears tells the story, sequentially, from the viewpoints of four different people: first Marco da Cola, supposedly a "gentleman" from Venice who writes his memoirs about his time in Oxford when he had to go to England to deal with some business matters for his father and who, being hard up for money, falls in with all sorts interesting people in Oxford and practices as a physician, engaging even in the entirely novel procedure of blood transfusion. He knows Sarah Blundy and treats her mother. The same story is then told from the perspective of Jack Prestcott, a fictitious character, who has quite a different slant on who da Cola was, and why he was really in Oxford, and who also knows Sarah Blundy and who in fact rapes her. The third slant comes from John Wallis, an Oxford mathematician (and a real historic personage; described as the greatest English mathematician before Newton) who has "proof" that da Cola was an assassin bent on murdering the King's principal advisor, intending to plunge the country back into civil war to the benefit of the papists. The fourth, and most revealing, aspect comes from Anthony Wood, an Oxford researcher and archivist (also a real historical person) who knows Sarah the best of all, and who figures out who da Cola really was and why he was in England. Wallis was right in that da Cola was not what he portrayed himself to be, but he was entirely mistaken as to the truth.
Pears' has a good quote, from Francis Bacon, that sums up the philosophy of the book:
Ideas of the Cavern are the Ideas of every Man in particular; we every one of us have our peculiar Den, which refracts and corrupts the Light of Nature, because of the differences of Impressions as they happen in a Mind prejudiced or possessed.
An interesting thought, that I find that I have included a number of times in my Commonplace Book, e.g.
David Adams Richards
It is prior assumption and contempt prior to investigation that destroys people.
A dull mind, once arriving at an inference that flatters a desire, is rarely able to retain the impression that the notion from which the inference started was purely problematic.
Or, Umberto Eco in that other great literary mystery, The Name of the Rose:
The Devil is not the Prince of Mater; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.
Pears describes wonderfully the society of England in the 1600s and it is not a pretty one. At one level, some of the most innovative scientific and philosophical thinking and experimenting is going on (Robert Boyle and John Locke both figure in the book), but this is within the context of extreme religious intolerance, superstition, intrigue, betrayal, the most pernicious and stultifying effects of the class system which treated the lucky few, at the top, as God's anointed, while all others where mere chaff to be used, abused, or thrown away as their "betters" desired.
Pears draws his characters very well: the enigmatic da Cola, the mad Prestscott, the malicious Wallis, the sublime Sarah, the confused but honest Wood, and he weaves them all into a good story.
Well, on second thought, if the title does discourage you, this book might not be your cup of tea.
If, however, you like all of the above, throw in a dash of Rashomanish multiple points of view and you've got An Instance of the Fingerpost. Pick it up and you're in for a crazy, cerebral ride.
Who murdered who is only the tip of the iceberg of what this book is about.
The book is a murder mystery novel. It is set in 17th century England and recalls events that happened in Oxford shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660. The events are told in the form of four memoirs, two of which are by real historic characters (John Wallis, mathematician and cryptographer and Anthony Wood, historian and antiquary). The book is laced with historic events and people, and Mr. Pears kindly provides an index at the end of the book to help the reader distinguish between real and fictitious characters and give a short biography of the real ones.
Dr. Grove, a dean at Oxford university, is found dead in his chambers after being poisoned by arsenic. Signs point to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who used to work for Dr. Grove. Sarah is found guilty and is hanged in public. But obviously this is only the beginning of the true story and as the plot unfolds, events much greater than a simple poisoning are revealed, some truly shocking. The ending is quite surprising, always a good thing with a mystery novel.
The author provides a fascinating look into life in academic Oxford in the age of the great scientific, medical and mathematical discoveries. Characters in the novel include such luminaries as the philosopher John Locke and the chemist Robert Boyle. It is laced with discussions on philosophy, theology, medicine and mathematics, such discussions taking place between the "men of curiosity" of that epoch. It is enlightening to witness how much religion played part both in politics and in science in those days, permeating all walks of life and defining the relationships between Protestants, Catholics and Quakers.
Pears writes beautifully with many insights into human nature and desires. The following passage struck me as particularly powerful, describing Anthony Wood's thoughts when faced with the insurmountable task of going through all the manuscripts in the libraries of Oxford to do his work. I am often struck with the same thought when I realize the number of books I will never get around to reading in my lifetime:
It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.
This book has been compared to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. That's a fair comparison but I find Pears' writing to be more flowing and more "human", indeed more moving, than Eco's.
I was looking forward to reading this book. I have never read a book by Iain Pears but I had heard this book described as being as complex and crafty as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I always enjoy a good historical mystery and this very large book caught my attention especially because it takes place during 1663 a period in English history I find very interesting and complex. I found this book to be very good, and despite the size of the story it keeps moving and is very fast paced. I really admired how Iain Pears wove together different plot elements and brought it all to a satisfactory end. Also, another excellent thing about this book is the idea behind the book, how four different people can view different events and they see what they want to see of the truth. I thought the idea behind the book was very complex and genus and the execution of the story is done well.
I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone who likes historical mystery, Iain Pears provides a timeline of events at the back of the book and a section about some of the major historical figures mentioned in his book that I found very interesting and important supplemental information.
The book is set in 1660s Oxford, mostly, although it does range to London or other English locations a few times. The country is turbulent, only recently brought back under monarchical rule after the period of Cromwell's Protectorate, and the unrest that shook the country, and the attempts to set things back to rights, lays heavy on the story. We have prominent characters from both sides of that struggle playing roles in this story, both big and small, and the motivations for many of the characters and how their plots play out are due to the prevailing concerns of the time.
The actual tale has plots for and against the new monarchy by the new players, and a murder of a fellow of New College at Oxford, along with the tale of a working-class woman, Sarah Blundy, and her mother. All of these stories fit together in often unexpected ways, but with the connections not feeling forced. Part of this is enforced by the way the story is constructed; the book is split into four sections, each with their own first-person, not entirely reliable narrator: Marco da Cola, an Venetian physician visiting Oxford who makes the acquaintance of the Blundy family, along with various important scientific figures of the time; Jack Prestcott, an Oxford student working to clear the name of his father and get his inheritance; John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer and Oxford; and Anthony Wood, a poor historian who ends up with access to the others' stories. In fact, each person in the story seems to have read the previous narrator's accounts, so they can comment on them.
Each narrator has his own motives and biases, and it's to Pears's credit that he can use these to help illuminate the way the story worked. Cola is a foreign gentleman, and doesn't understand England completely; Prestcott is supremely focused on what happened to his father, and is very much inclined to take prerogatives from his status as a gentleman in the society (i.e. he behaves pretty badly); Wallis is cold, calculating and inclined to see everyone negatively; Wood is modest, writing to try to reconcile all of the accounts with his knowledge, and is somewhat disorganized. But these traits, while making the narrators more human - even when they behave terribly, they behave understandably for who they are - are also useful for making the story work, in ingenious ways. They contradict in their interpretation of events, and judgments of characters. And the story of Sarah Blundy, in particular, for whom you never get her own words, is really best created from these different views of her. For a story concerned with the nature of truth, this may make her point more strongly than if she spoke for herself.
Pears has a very good handle on style, as well. His characters sound different, each of the narrators, and each is realistic for who they are. And the emotions he evokes, the dialogues, the scenery... again, he's really masterful. I lingered on pages sometimes, to try to really get a sense of the action, something I very rarely do.
All in all, this is a tightly plotted, well-characterized, intelligently researched and written, and thoroughly enjoyable book. Stone's Fall was my favorite book of last year; I shouldn't be surprised if this one turns out to be this year's. And I should read more of this author's work.
The book is nominally a mystery. The story is presented, in Rashomon-like style, as four succeeding manuscripts by four different people who were present during events that led to the murder of an Oxford don. But as in Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose," tracking down the killer is just a small part of the business of the book. The book touches on issues of science, religion, truth, identity, politics, love, revenge, and even gender and class questions. There is madness, possession by devils, and even a miracle or two. It's one of those books with a title you don't understand till you've finished.
It's very long, very dense, and very, very good.
I also wish I’d known in advance that the whole concept of the novel is that you’re going to hear the whole story, repeatedly, from different perspectives. It’s always disappointing when you think (due to the number of pages on the right) that there are many more events to come – and there aren’t. Certainly, seeing the events through a different perspective, there are further revelations… but the ‘that’s it?’ realization was a bit of a let-down.
‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is a 17th-century British mystery-drama. I’d never heard the term ‘fingerpost,’ but it’s the British term (perhaps quite obviously) for one of those signposts that look like a hand pointing the way to a location. Here, each narrator’s tale seems to point in a somewhat different direction. (And all the narrators are probably-historically-authentic but quite-utterly-despicable people. Get ready to feel icky about spending time in their self-justifying, nasty company.) The first is Marco de Cola, an Italian dandy ostensibly in London to look after his father’s financial interests, but seemingly more interested in pursuing medical experimentation and intellectual pursuits. Second, Jack Prestcott; obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s reputation and overcoming his reputation as the son of a traitor to the realm. Third, John Wallis – a mathematician and cryptographer, and also a religious fanatic. Fourth – Anthony Wood – a socially pathetic man with somewhat-hidden intellectual abilities and an historian. None of them are reliable. Some may be intentionally deceitful. Some may be insane.
The events center around the tale of Sarah Blundy; a poverty-stricken young woman accused of murder; but encompass a host of political machinations and conspiracies, going up to the highest level. Keeping track of all the characters (most of whom are historical figures), their motivations, and the elements that agree and conflict in each of their stories is intellectually stimulating. However, I wasn’t as emotionally drawn in to many of the events as I would’ve liked to be.
However, I’d challenge any reader to fail to feel for Sarah Blundy, caught as she is in a trap not of her own making. More than most books, this vividly brings to light the unenviable situation of simply being a woman without means in this time and place.
This was a very good novel – but as I said, my (very) high expectations led me to feel a little let down by it. I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes complex mysteries and a 17th-century historical setting.
Well, sort of. Back in 1998 when I bought it, I got about 2/3 of the way through before giving up. I don’t remember what the reason was exactly. It might have been my expectations – I framed this story as a mystery in my head (I think this is how it was marketed) and wasn’t prepared for the amount of atmospheric (non-mystery-solving) detail it has. Yes the reason that each person writes his part of the narrative is because someone is killed, but none of them is directly involved in trying to find out who and why. That’s probably what did it. That and the amount of political intrigue concerning the toppling of Cromwell’s Republic and the Restoration of the Monarchy. I didn’t know much about that and so trying to piece it all together was too much and a lot of the implications whizzed right by me.
This time around I had access to a robust internet and so could do some reading beforehand. It certainly helped. Also I readjusted my expectations of this book and read it more as a historical fiction piece rather than as a mystery. Having the murder take a back seat to each narrator’s own doings certainly made things easier. Now I’ve read it I’m glad I hung onto it even though I couldn’t get through it the first time. I do that with books that seem to have potential.
I certainly can see why I stopped where I did; Wallis is a repugnant person with a vicious little mind and a judgmental attitude. Bigoted Asshole about sums him up. I don’t know if that’s what he was actually like, but he made my flesh crawl and I had to force myself read his piece of the story. There is so much interconnected detail that I didn’t allow myself to skim for fear of missing something important and becoming lost later on. Of all four narrators, Wallis is the least sympathetic with Prescott coming in a close second. Cola was smarmy and always seemed to be trying to ingratiate himself into something and wasn’t so attractive either, but neither was he repulsive. Through the accounts from the others we learn that he is not what he seems, nor is he exactly what others think either. I love that kind of thing. Unreliable narrators don’t scare me off; I rather enjoy their twisted views. Our final narrator was a bit deluded, but likeable enough. Wood had to balance a precarious social position with his conscience and in any age, that’s difficult to do.
Mild spoilers -
No, none of the narrators had much sympathy from me. All of that was reserved for Sarah Blundy. Every time I read a novel set in a time where individuals could be trampled on, violated and taken advantage of with impunity I am even more thankful I’m a child of the later 20th century. In the end, I didn’t like what she became though; I could have done without the Christ-figure, thanks. Wasn’t her fate awful enough without that? But I guess once Pears got going with the religious aspect of the story he couldn’t resist going a few steps beyond. Maybe it’s the atheist in me, but I found the whole thing ridiculous. As Wood got through his tale and it started meshing with Prescott and Wallis’s I knew the ultimate solution would be something religious. It didn’t matter much to me though. I can’t work up a froth about the distinctions that made everyone so rabid back then. Catholic, Protestant, whatever, it’s all basically the same superstitious wankery to me and so even in the end, when intellectually I knew why everyone was freaking out, emotionally it had little effect. (And before anyone gets on me about it, yes I know the basic differences between C & P dogma – the Pope as God’s rep on earth, the transubstantiation etc, but I don’t care about them…they are stupid to me, but then again, all religion is). Ok, I’m letting it go.
As an inside look at the life and times though, I think it’s excellent. I loved how a man who insisted on quarterly baths is called fastidious. Descriptions of food, living conditions, clothing and most of all the “medical advances” of the day all made me cringe. Although in 400 years people of the future will probably cringe at our primitive surgical remedies and clumsy drug regimens that do not cure, but only mask symptoms. Still, to die like Anne Blundy did is intensely horrific. And I know that knowledge and enquiry had to start somewhere, but to not know what blood is and what it’s for is inconceivable. Ditto for needles, injections and transfusions. It’s hard to put oneself back into that darkly ignorant time. Same with political equality and jurisprudence. It all has to start somewhere, but it’s difficult to read about it with any serenity.
So approach this book as one about memory and the presentation of events; how they differ and how through omission and misdirection a narrator can manipulate the reader. Approach it with the understanding that there is no sleuth, no who-dunnit, no detection, but that the mystery will be revealed in pieces by each narrator and it will be up to you to frame the solution. Read it with curiosity about how English people struggled with being subjects and being citizens and the differences between the two. And of course, read it with the idea that religion ruled all and is the most powerful control mechanism ever devised.