Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

An Instance of the FingerpostI bought Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost because I was looking for books which reflected the time of their writing as consciously as the time of their story, and I certainly found it here.The Name of the Rose name-check in the reviews is not inaccurate. An Instance of the Fingerpost, too, is a long book thickly packed with characters and ideas, and as with the Eco, both characters and ideas turn out to be clues. It’s 1665: King Charles II is not yet safe on his restored throne, and as in post-Hitlerian Europe, everyone’s trying to find their footing amid the rubble of the war. Four self-contained, self-conscious accounts by four interconnected characters – an Italian doctor, a Royalist student, a theologian and government codebreaker, and an antiquarian – pivot on the same public and private events. Pears has done a remarkable job of plotting: each has a different reason for writing his account, each had different motives for his actions, and each is unreliable in a different way. Pears not only successfully evokes the raging scientific, religious, social and political ferment of the times, he harnesses it and its actors to his own purposes, and sets it in a vividly realised and accurate historical world.This makes it all sound rather strenuous, and Fingerpost certainly isn’t a straightforward read. But Pears can bring even well-documented historical characters and enmities wholly and eccentrically to life, and for the most part I found his narrative voices wonderfully characterised and compelling. The plot is staggeringly complicated, but it can still be enjoyed when the finer details elude us, because the writing and setting are so rich. I had my quibbles with the occasional word or phrase, but that’s an occupational hazard of reading the kind of book you yourself write. My one real reservation is that, because of the nature of the plot, for a so-called thriller there is far more talk than action. The past web of deception and misapprehension which is revealed page by page is full of murders and conspiracies, but it is past: quests and discoveries are now a paper trail, climaxes consist of one man telling another why he did something years ago. The form Pears has chosen for his narrative reinforces this effect. The tone of these deliberate accounts – describing events, setting the record straight, explaining what happened – does distance the reader from complete immersion in the events being recounted. It’s intriguing and fashionable that we’re never sure what to believe, but although the end is truly surprising and is told with as near certainty as we’re allowed, this necessary scepticism distances us still further.My other reservation is purely a matter of taste. Three of the four narrators are not conventionally appealing characters, and the world they live in, as they see it, is grim. At times I felt that Pears was succumbing to the modern fictional clichés, which cast the past as nasty, brutish and short, as completely as any Victorian succumbed to the cliché of Merrie Englande. However excellent the writing, and however fascinating the ideas – and in An Instance of the Fingerpost they certainly are – not all readers are going to want to spend that much time in such a world. The last of the four accounts, you might say, redeems this grimness in various ways, and only here I did find truly moving but all too brief moments of love, beauty and transcendance. Maybe that’s how Pears means it to be.

Vintage, 1998, 704 pp., ISBN: 009975181X

6 comments on “An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

  1. lisaonsea
    November 6, 2007

    This sounds just my sort of thing. I do love a bit of grim. Fascinating period in which to set a novel. You’ve made me want to read it. I’m getting bored with conventionally appealing characters and fancy a bit of unusual. Great review!

  2. marygm
    November 6, 2007

    I read this book years ago and loved it. I can’t remember it well enough to discuss the details but your review seems spot-on.
    I liked the book so much I bought another of his: ‘The Dream of Scipio’ I think it was but I didn’t enjoy it as much.

  3. Jackie
    November 6, 2007

    Like Mary, I read this years ago, but couldn’t recall as much of it as I’d like, so your review was a great refresher. I’ve read other books by Pears & you are right in the manner of his narratives. But I always feel quite immersed in his stories anyways. You did a good job summarizing a complex book.

  4. Emma
    November 7, 2007

    Glad you agree with my summary – it’s not the simplest of stories! I have The Dream of Scipio on my shelves; I’ll be interested to see if I enjoy it more, having got used to Pears’s writing, or less because it’s not so surprising. Also rather less my period, mind you.

  5. Slumpy
    May 8, 2008

    I just read this book, and loved it. I didn’t want to leave 1663, was sorry to put it down. As for the narrators, I would say I liked two of them, and disliked the other two (as people), but still enjoyed reading their view on things, even though my feelings towards them had already biased me against believing their tales. Aside from the plot itself, the scientific views and medical beliefs and procedures particularly interested me. I picked the book up on a whim at a local trash and treasure markets, and I’m glad I did. I’ll be trying to convince all my friends to read it now.

  6. Pingback: An instance of the fingerpost | Susan Hated Literature

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This entry was posted on November 6, 2007 by in Fiction: historical, Fiction: literary, fiction: mystery and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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