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Tony Grist

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An Instance Of The Fingerpost: Iain Pears [Jan. 11th, 2008|12:24 pm]
Tony Grist
First of all- thank you veronica_milvus for giving me this book.

A slow start. Unattractive characters. But hang on in there- it'll all make sense later on.

And then...

But here's the problem: if I say anything about what happens next it'll be a spoiler. This is a book full of twists and surprises.

So my hands are tied. I don't suppose I'm giving too much away if I say you're in for a Rashomon experience. Four narrators, all with a different angle on the same story. Reliable or unreliable-  well-  what do you think?

We've touched down in mid 17th century Oxford. The monarchy has been restored but the issues and hatreds of the Civil War are still bubbling under. We're living in a police state. Boy, you'd better conform or you're not going to get that preferment. A lot of the characters are real people- famous people like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Christopher Wren-  and not so famous people like Cromwell's spymaster John Thurloe (think George Smiley only darker). This is a mystery novel, right? Sort of Brother Cadfael but a lot more intellectual? Erm, yes- so far as it goes...

Lots of historical detail. TMI. Lice, mud, vomit, baths once a quarter- but only if you're particularly fastidious about personal hygiene. 

But, of course you have to suspend a whole truckload of disbelief. These are 17th century people writing as no 17th century person ever wrote- using narrative techniques that were only developed in the 19th century. Ah well, novels are always pretending to be things they're not. Does David Copperfield convince as an Autobiography? No, not really.

But the 17th century mindset comes across convincingly.  No Mary Sues round here. These narrators believe in some pretty screwy things. And there are lots of lovely, sly jokes at their expense.

So, a big, historical, mystery novel- very ambitious- a bit like Name of the Rose in fact?  Well yes- and that comparison should give us pause. Because the Name of the Rose- though it works excellently well as a mystery- is also something else. And this? Well the same applies. At the heart of the mystery nestles a very different kind of story- but exactly what kind of story doesn't become apparent until the last few pages. All I'm going to say is I found the climactic revelation extremely moving. 

Have I said too much?  I hope not. 
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2008-01-11 01:20 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked it! I have to say I found the climactic revelation one of the hardest and most disbelievable things about it - I felt a bit let down. But I enjoyed the different viewpoints, the diferent versions of truth, and the density of the atmosphere. I would love to be able to dream up something like that!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-11 01:30 pm (UTC)
I goes beyond "realism" at the end. I like that. Sarah has been this curious, anomalous character all the way through- it's not as if the ground hasn't been prepared- and in the end you find out why. It's a brave, bold conceit and for me it worked.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2008-01-11 03:22 pm (UTC)
If it's even vaguely as good as Name of the Rose, it's worth a read. Thanks for the good and non-revealing review.
:)
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[User Picture]From: shullie
2008-01-11 03:50 pm (UTC)
ditto... shall look out for it :)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-11 06:25 pm (UTC)
I don't think it is as good as Name of the Rose (partly because NotR was the trailblazer for all these history-mysteries) but it's not that far behind.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2008-01-11 04:55 pm (UTC)
I was enormously impressed with the first three (? it's a while since I read it) sections, and very let down by the ending. Partly this was because of that shift in the nature of the story, which either works for you or doesn't. I wasn't convinced by the story it became; and I felt cheated by the resolution of the mystery it had been up to that point.

But my main problem was that after all this narrative with a very convincing seventeenth century mindset (and although what you say about it being a very un-seventeenth century narrative form is true, the actual voices were very persuasive) I had been wondering how the story would be resolved in period, and felt that actually it wasn't, that the final voice was a modern man in period costume.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-01-11 07:50 pm (UTC)
Sarah Blundy belongs to the fringe world of the Quakers and Levellers and Ranters and Diggers. Some of those guys had very modern ideas. And Anthony Wood as Sarah's convert- well, I can accept that. Maybe because I want to accept it.

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[User Picture]From: aerodrome1
2008-01-15 06:40 pm (UTC)
Thurloe as Geo. Smiley--- I really like that. I do.
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