Sunday 18 August 2019

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

I've had a copy of Iain Pears' most renowned novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, for more years than I care to admit. Like all too many others, it's stared at me reproachfully from the shelf, but to be honest I was put off by its sheer length, and its reputation for density - even though it enjoys, overall, a very good reputation. But I knew it was set in 17th century Oxford, and my recent Atlantic crossing, to be followed by five days in Oxford, seemed like the ideal opportunity to have a read of it at last.

This is a sort of "casebook" novel, in the manner of The Moonstone, and I should probably have freshened up my understanding of the historical period before plunging in. Many of the characters are taken from real life, and there's a helpful Who's Who at the back, though I didn't realise that until I got to the end of the story.

Four characters tell their version of, effectively, the same sequence of events concerning the death of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, of which a pretty but enigmatic young woman Sarah Blundy is accused. We start with an Italian visitor to Oxford, a man with medical skills, Marco da Cola. I found his account engaging, though there is a development towards the end of his account that was truly shocking. Then it's the turn of Jack Prescott, son of a supposed traitor; his story was in some ways the least satisfying of the four. After that comes John Wallis, a cryptographer and deeply unpleasant individual. Like Grove, but unlike Prescott, da Cola, and Sarah Blundy, he is taken from real life.

Finally we have the story of a young antiquary, again a real life figure, Anthony Wood. He's a more likeable fellow, though he has his moments of weakness. Towards the end of the book comes a remarkable plot twist that I simply wasn't prepared for - but it's very well done. At times I thought the book was heavy going, perhaps in part due to my ignorance of the historical detail; I suspect that it could have been cut by a hundred pages without any great loss. But despite this, I was impressed with Pears' writing. This is a fascinating novel, and I'm glad I finally made time to read it, even though it took me until the end of the Oxford trip to reach the climax. 

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