An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
Oddly enough, this is where I work and it was quite peculiar to read the various street names having just walked along their twenty-first century counterparts. To be honest, vast screeds of Oxford remain changed. Certainly Merton Street has not aside from the double yellow lines. It is one of those cities which keeps one foot proudly in the past. Given that the majority of historical fiction concentrates on fashion choices or possibly military manoeuvres, Fingerpost is far more subtle.
Nevertheless, Pears is the not the kind of writer who stops to waste time with lengthy exposition. The reader is assumed to have some awareness of the political context and of academic politics and so the plot moves on. However, it is not just that political power struggles under examination here, each narrator writes their own experience of the murder of Dr Grove, an academic at New College.
His former servant Sarah Blundy comes under suspicion of having poisoned him and no one can quite seem to agree about her true nature. The first testimony comes from Marco de Cola and indeed the discovery of his papers is what has prompted the other three narrators to write their accounts in the first place. Then there is the historian Wood, held in contempt by the other narrators but there is a chance, just a chance that he can see more clearly than any of them.
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This is a truly spectacular feat. He moved on to Oxford in an effort to improve his situation and fell in with some of the notable scientific minds of the day. On the face of it, de Cola has nothing to hide, no axe to grind. Yet as each of the others take their turn, we begin to question his version of events.
Why did he behave so charitably towards Anne Blundy?
Why did he even come to Oxford in the first place? Did he really speak all of the wise wise words he claimed to have, or was he a tongue-tied foreigner? Are we to believe him when he says that blood transfusion was his idea rather than those of the Oxford scientists? There are so many moments that I loved in this novel. We smirk silently as he reacts in horror to piece of theatre he has been taken to; we can recognise by description that he is criticising King Lear.
Yet there are other ideas which are most disturbing; one woman who has complained of rape is discovered to be lying as she has fallen pregnant by her supposed attacker and everyone knows that this only happens if the woman experiences an orgasm during the act. Yet still, by contrast there is a sense of excitement surrounding the scientific research Cola describes, the possibilities and yet the depths which man is prepared to stoop to in order to find new knowledge and new understanding. This is a world standing on the brink, not yet quite ready to let go of the old beliefs and superstitions yet beginning to question.
I think what has always put me off about the Restoration was the cynicism of it all — the King was not invited back out of some great love of Charles II himself but because Cromwell had died and the government seems to have felt lost without a leader.
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James Prescott might moon around old battlefields and consider the past but the average common man knew that the war had been miserable and repeats were to be avoided. People were pragmatic about what had to be done — there was little romance to it and few personalities to warm to.
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It is not surprising that the grudges cherished by those who had felt hard done by festered. Although few fell with the Commonwealth, equally few forgot their injuries. The suspicion of Catholics remained like the modern threat of Islamic extremism and always the worry of how close they were to the King.
Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost
Religion inspires a different kind of fear now but it is almost impossible to imagine a society governed by religious ritual. Pears portrays the unease of this society expertly. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.
The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment.
The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot. At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity.
This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic.
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He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot. A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself. All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily. You are commenting using your WordPress. You are commenting using your Twitter account. You are commenting using your Facebook account.
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