Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 11) An Instance of the Fingerpost

11) An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears

I've been laid low today by a bug I've been battling since the weekend, and have resorted to the usual therapy of naps, reading and paracetamol. Finished this excellent book, recommended to me by pgmcc and purplepooka and a Christmas present from wwhyte. It's a great story of events swirling around a murder in Oxford in 1663, told by four different narrators, each unreliable in their own way. This is of course the era of Pepys (who makes an obvious but unnamed appearance in the last chapter), and not far off Neal Stephenson either. I wondered to what extent Pears was taking liberties with the historical facts, especially since two of his narrators are actual historical figures; but he has been fairly transparent, with an appendix clarifying which characters are fictional and what real accounts their story is based on.

I don't think he always gets the 17th-century mind-set right, and his portrayals of historical characters don't always ring completely true, but comparisons with Eco and his portrayal of the 14th century in The Name of the Rose are fair: it's a canvas on which the story is painted, not a historical textbook. Having the same events described in four different voices is a brilliantly absorbing device; the story sets the basic human plot - murder, unjust accusal, trial - in the context of the ferment of scientific ideas around the time of the foundation of the Royal Society, the religious hangover from the Revolution, and the immediate post-Restoration political uncertainty. In fact, the novel moves rather impressively from the scientific to the mystical as we shift narrative voices. I guess the one flaw structurally is that we have to accept the fourth and in some ways most fantastic version of the story as being more or less "accurate", having been previously set up with three less reliable accounts (two of which self-consciously display their own unreliability).

Anyway, a good 'un.
Tags: bookblog 2008

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