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.

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

Regular readers of Vulpes Libris will know that Sam Ruddock has been a popular guest reviewer for several months, and we’re delighted to welcome him now as a fully fledged Book Fox – with a little cracker of a review …


Picture the scene: it is early December, Christmas lights blink at you as you walk through throngs of shoppers, laden down with presents for your loved ones. The air feels charged with an electric buzz. Across the cold tarmac the sweet sound of carollers makes you yearn for peace, quiet and a glass of mulled wine. Your shoulders ache, feet are sore. Then, just as you think the shopping is finally finished you are reminded of the one person you always forget, that person you really should buy something for. That person you never know what to buy for. Well never fear, for I have the perfect solution to all your woes.

The Quincunx is absolutely, positively, the perfect book for winter reading. Weighty as a draft excluder, thick as treacle, enticing as an open fire, you pluck it from the shelf a devour it. No book I have read provides such indulgent enjoyment. Fast-paced and exhilarating, it lures you in and takes you on a tour of early-nineteenth century England, with a conspiracy so enthralling it will keep you guessing long into the night – because once you get into the plot, there will be no putting it down until you are finished and the mysteries have finally been solved. It is one of those novels that could keep you company all winter, packed as it is with a horde of devious, dastardly, lovable, and mysterious characters. But despite its 1200 pages, you’ll probably be finished in a couple of weeks.

Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a book, this is what I suggest. The Quincunx is a proper story: epic in scope, with companionable characters, and a suitable dose of stimulation for the grey matter. I have never met anyone who had a bad word to say about it.

The plot follows Johnnie Huffam as he battles to stave off hidden conspiracies and outmanoeuvre his relatives in order to obtain the inheritance that is rightfully his. But in the meantime there is the small matter of just trying to stay alive…

It all comes down to a scrap of paper: the codicil the codicil to a will written half a century earlier, a will which has provoked greed, hatred, murder, and lunacy since before it was written. As enemies circle and the fate of the inheritance moves steadily towards resolution in Chancery, Johnnie must find out who he is, and his place in the wider familial quincunx, before it is too late.

If you like epic fiction you’ll love it. Although its setting makes it ideally suited to winter reading (why is it that when we think of the nineteenth century we think almost exclusively of cold grey streets, fog, thick overcoats, and families huddling around the fire? Is it because Christmas as we know it is such a nineteenth century invention, characterised so clearly in Dickens’s Christmas Carol? Or perhaps the smog of the Industrial Revolution has settled on the collective imagination?) it is really a novel for any time or place in which you want to lose yourself entirely in a great story.

But The Quincunx is not just a riotous plot-driven adventure – though that, surely is more than enough. It is a pastiche of the mid-nineteenth century novel, the kind made famous by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Indeed John Huffam, takes his name from Charles John Huffam Dickens’s middle names, and the namesakes also share the same date of birth. However, these references are just the tip of the iceberg. The pastiche is there in almost everything from the characters, to the settings, to the central concept of the book itself: a debate between the concepts of law and equity, that is between what is written in law and what is deemed equitable or fair.

It is this pastiche that is most often discussed in regard to The Quincunx. But the term doesn’t really do the book justice. Far from simply paraphrasing and satirising classic authors, Palliser takes the skills, interests and characteristics of the mid-nineteenth century novel and perfects them, distils them, concentrates them, creating a novel which is more Dickensian than Dickens, more Collins than Collins ever was. It is everything you could want in a Victorian novel: episodic, all encompassing, and packed with denouements at every turn.

Added to this nineteenth century focus, Palliser uses a host of modernist devices including an unreliable narrator, inconclusive ending, and concealed structure to make the mystery all the more deceptive. There is a whole hidden structure which revolves around the number five, the quin of the title. There are five related families over five generations, whose five crests form a quincunx, an arrangement of five objects with one in each corner of a square and one at the centre. The novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters. In a review, this may seem irrelevant, but within this carefully designed mathematical structure are held many of the fundamental mysteries of The Quincunx. It is one of those books you could study for years and still not grasp fully. The amazing extent of this planning is made particularly clear in Palliser’s fascinating, if a little self congratulatory, Afterword to the current Penguin edition.

When I started reading The Quincunx on Boxing Day a few years ago, I thought I was in for a long period of concerted reading. I was anxious, uncertain, and wary due to the amazing length of it. Yet only six days later, about an hour into the new year it was finished. In the intervening days I barely got out of bed for anything, let alone to welcome in the New Year. And when I had finished, I found myself sad and lonely as at the passing of a friend. Even at 1200 pages The Quincunx is nowhere near long enough. I love every single word of it. And that is in spite it containing three of the things I most dislike in a book: small print, long paragraphs of text, and chapters which start on the same page as the previous one finished. Were it not for the engaging plot, it would be one of those dispiriting books in which just turning a page feels like a great achievement. But as it is the pages fly by as unnoticed as the minutes turning to hours.

For some the often lengthy discussions about law and equity could prove hard work, but I found them illuminating. At times Johnnie’s narration is a little mature and astute for such a young boy, but then what most exemplifies The Quincunx is a need to question everything, including Johnnie himself. This is particularly evident as Johnnie grows closer to his goal, and begins to realise that neither good nor bad can be taken at face value, and that trust is a dangerous emotion to give in to. And in the end, despite being focused on the absurdity of familial inheritance in a closed hierarchical society, the reader is left unsure as to the moral fortitude of its hero. After all he has seen, will his life simply offer yet more evidence for the selfishness of man?

You’ll just have to read it to find out.

So let’s return to where we were at the beginning of this review: it is December, you are out late and just need to find one more present before you can go home. Now you know exactly what to do: make a beeline for the nearest bookshop and place an order for The Quincunx (ISBN: 9780140177626). Who knows, if it is a good bookshop they might even have one in stock. That done you can return home invigorated, feeling somehow that the mood of winter has been captured in a series of black marks on cream paper.

And who said anything about giving it as a present?

Edition shown: Ballantine Books.  Hardback.  1990.  ISBN: 978-0345364630.  788pp.

Also available: Penguin.  Paperback.  1995.  ISBN: 978-0140177626 .  1248pp.

16 comments on “The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

  1. The Virtual Victorian
    December 2, 2009

    Oh…this book kept me up all night. It is absolutely wonderful.

    If you’ve read it and want another good Christmas read in a similar vein, try The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox.

  2. Lija
    December 2, 2009

    This is the one you recommended earlier… This seals the deal! I’m off to see if I can get one from the library. Love the description of foggy streets=winter reading.

  3. bZirk
    December 2, 2009

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this review. Maybe I’m having a moment of weakness, but I’m actually considering reading a 1200+ page fictional book. As much as I love reading, I haven’t read any fiction that lengthy in probably 25 years.

    NET: he sold me.

  4. Jackie
    December 2, 2009

    The enthusiasm is really overflowing in this review, I like how it was brought full circle. Avid reader though I am, I’m a little overwhelmed at the thought of tackling a book that long.But your description is really tempting & I do like historical novels with intertwining families. So maybe….

  5. Anne Brooke
    December 2, 2009

    This sounds great – and I too can recommend The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox – another delicious book to savour indeed.



  6. Moira
    December 2, 2009

    As soon as I read this review, I hit AbeBooks … and my copy of The Quincunx landed on my doormat with a resounding THUD this morning … Sold! 😀

  7. Hilary
    December 2, 2009

    At the moment, I seem to be reading nothing but tiny, lapidary, elliptical and old novels, but if anything is going to lure me back to reading a great, thick, doorstopper of a book, it’s this mightily persuasive review! Thanks, Sam – sounds like a great idea for the Christmas season, one of very few times when it’s easy to find a stretch of hours to curl up in a chair with a book that demands time and attention.

  8. Nikki
    December 3, 2009

    Congratulations on being a full-fox, Sam! This sounds fab! There’s nothing I like more than a thick juicy book for winter and the lead-up to Christmas. Something that provides an escape from the madness and is thick with atmosphere. (I bought Bleak House with the intention that it would be my winter book, but I couldn’t resist it and finished it weeks ago!). So, thank you, Sam. I have been faffing around trying to find a good book to fill these winter evenings and now it looks like I’ve found it! To the library!

  9. Sam Ruddock
    December 3, 2009

    “To the library!!!!!!!!!”
    Isn’t that from a film or something?

    YAY to so many people finding a new book to read. And such a good book too. I really do hope you all love it as much as I do. It is my wife’s favouite ever book, and I know one very well read sales rep for Bloomsbury who reads it almost every year.
    I totally understand the retiscence about reading such a long book, (I felt the same!) but I promise here and now that if anyone doesn’t like it you can throw your copy at me, and lets be honest, big as it is that thing could do a lot of damage…

    I am now super excited by The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. Had looked at it a few times and wondered whether to give it a go but will now definitely check it out. I think I might have found my Christmas reading too!

    Thanks for all the lovely comments. I’m super delighted to finally be able to describe myself as ‘foxy’.

  10. Peta
    December 5, 2009

    I received this for Christmas last year and (I am ashamed to say) have avoided reading it ever since – probably because it’s so BIG. This review reminded me why I wanted to read it in the first place and it has made me pull it out of the TBR shelves and firmly place it on my Christmas holiday agenda. Thank you!

  11. Sam Pontuck
    February 15, 2010

    Like most readers, I absolutely loved it. However, I had to reread it to pick up details about all the people and events involved. In doing so, I was left with a few questions. Perhaps someone can answer them.
    1. When Mary and John left Melthorpe, they wore coats and had heavy blankets. But shortly thereafter (pg 158), they are wearing summer clothes.
    2. Mary and Peter were married in the morning and Peter was arrested that evening. Assuming there would have been no time to conceive John during this time, he must have been conceived before the marriage. Why did none of the claimants notice that and use it to declare him illegitimate?

  12. SamRuddock
    February 19, 2010

    Hi Sam, interesting questions. I can’t answer the first one without going back and reading it but the second is one of the most often asked and subject to much debate and discussion. The easiest answer is that many people think that John was illegitimate anyway, that Mary had been having an affair with Martin F for a long time and that the marriage was little more than a cover up.

    Of course, this doesn’t answer why his enemies wouldn’t use this to damage his claim. I guess the answer to that is that there was no means of proving the claim, and that if they had just said that Johnnie was conceived out of wedlock few people would have cared. Scandal, perhaps. But that would not have had an effect on the legitimacy of his inheritance.

    Does that make sense? I haven’t read it for 4 years so my memory is a little sketchy but that is the basic argument, I believe.

  13. Pingback: Review: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser « Alex In Leeds

  14. JAG Maw
    July 13, 2017

    I think the meaning of Equity in the book is as understood in the capital markets, not in the law courts. Equity in The Quincunx means ownership, money, power.

    “Let us imagine, then, how Law might have waited upon Equity.”

    The law exists to serve power.

  15. Pingback: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser – Claudine's Comments

  16. jim
    January 22, 2022

    I just finished book one. I am totally mesmerized. I haven’t been so completely hopelessly lost in a novel since The Goldfinch.

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