Two years ago I was waiting in the drive-thru at a Taco Bell, flipping through the newspaper. I came across a review of a new book called Literacy and Longing In L.A. It was a romance novel, but with a twist: the damsel in dating distress in this story is a bookworm, and she narrates her lovelorn saga with frequent references to things she’s reading.
It sounded interesting, so I picked it up and gave it a whirl. It was, of course, a disaster: every stereotype I’d heard about romance novels was right on the money. It was Sex and the City with literary allusions.
However, in its long list of names that were dropped I found two that I’d never heard of before that genuinely intrigued me. The first was How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, which I quickly read and thoroughly enjoyed. The other was Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, which looked a little more daunting, so I never dove into it until recently.
And now 2009 has its first perfect ten.
An Instance of the Fingerpost is a massive tome, set against the turmoil of 1660’s England as the monarchy is being reestablished, where four narrators argue that they know who really committed a murder, that of Dr. Grove. Each narrator adds details to that central plot while telling us of his own adventures, each a self-contained novel complete, each in a voice wholly unique and convincing. Think Rashomon, but with cameos by English philosopher John Locke.
Though I wonder why Pears doesn’t write even more truly to the style of the period (shouldn’t there be superfluous capital letters? antiquated spellings?), it is impressively recondite, full of complex, refined, flowing prose that charms the reader like watching a hypnotist dazzle you. The words themselves are a joy to behold.
And the setting is rendered as flawlessly as if it were digitally programmed by experts (which, in a manner of speaking, it was, as Pears is a master art historian who clearly did his homework here). Not only is there never a stray step–not an anachronism to be seen in a spellbinding tale of excruciating detail–but the very prejudices and social norms of this society come across in a pitch perfect tone: piety pervades every facet of life, as does a barely restrained hostility between Catholics and Protestants, and the superstitions of the period suffuse all thought, even though they’re supported by graceful logic. Pears creates this crystal clear portrait of the era as a backdrop to tell us a story of the most surpassing power.
For the murder of Dr. Grove is not at all what it seems. From the memoir of the first narrator–a young Italian doctor–we can see strings being pulled by shadowy figures in higher authority; this murder becomes part of a much larger conspiracy, actually a stacked layer of interlocking conspiracies, and the innocent girl who takes the fall for it is all the more tragic for being a pawn in their games.
But remember The Truman Show (one of my favorite movies, by the way)? How he was manipulated by unseen forces, but their plan ultimately came to ruin because Truman turned out to be far stronger than they could have planned for? Ditto for poor Sarah Blundy, whose remarkable character makes her far from a passive victim. Ultimately, this is her story, and it’s astonishing. As the last narrator fills in the blanks and connects the dots for us, we are left slack jawed in awe at Pears’ achievement.
Another movie reference: remember The Sixth Sense and how stunned you were at how the clues fit into place after the surprise had been revealed? The conclusions to An Instance of the Fingerpost (for there are multiple revelations needed to bring this fantastic web of political intrigue together) are ten times better than that.
I only know a little about Cromwell, the Commonwealth, and the Restoration of the monarchy. This book taught me a lot, and I marvel at how deftly Pears integrates history with his tale of suspense. From dramatizing the experiments that gave rise to blood transfusion, to the methods of royal cryptographers, to speculations about the true political and religious loyalties of high officials, this book sucks you in. There’s an appendix that gives brief backgrounds of the historical figures that populate this story, and they’re as fascinating as any fictional characters ever written: I’ll have to look up some more about Thurloe, Lower, and Anthony Wood.
Iain Pears has given lovers of history and literature a great gift, and he has given me one of my new favorite books. And all because I was flipping through a newspaper at a Taco Bell drive-thru.