For ages, everyone told me that ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is Iain Pears’ best novel. Partly because of this I sort of ‘saved it up’ and held off on reading it for a while. (The other factor in this decision was that this book, even in paperback, weighs about 10 pounds. It’s enough to make me want a Kindle!) But, because of this expectation-of-awesomeness (and maybe a tiny smidgin because of sore wrists?) I was a little bit disappointed. This is definitely Iain Pears’ most ambitious novel – but I didn’t like it the best.
I also wish I’d known in advance that the whole concept of the novel is that you’re going to hear the whole story, repeatedly, from different perspectives. It’s always disappointing when you think (due to the number of pages on the right) that there are many more events to come – and there aren’t. Certainly, seeing the events through a different perspective, there are further revelations… but the ‘that’s it?’ realization was a bit of a let-down.
‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is a 17th-century British mystery-drama. I’d never heard the term ‘fingerpost,’ but it’s the British term (perhaps quite obviously) for one of those signposts that look like a hand pointing the way to a location. Here, each narrator’s tale seems to point in a somewhat different direction. (And all the narrators are probably-historically-authentic but quite-utterly-despicable people. Get ready to feel icky about spending time in their self-justifying, nasty company.) The first is Marco de Cola, an Italian dandy ostensibly in London to look after his father’s financial interests, but seemingly more interested in pursuing medical experimentation and intellectual pursuits. Second, Jack Prestcott; obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s reputation and overcoming his reputation as the son of a traitor to the realm. Third, John Wallis – a mathematician and cryptographer, and also a religious fanatic. Fourth – Anthony Wood – a socially pathetic man with somewhat-hidden intellectual abilities and an historian. None of them are reliable. Some may be intentionally deceitful. Some may be insane.
The events center around the tale of Sarah Blundy; a poverty-stricken young woman accused of murder; but encompass a host of political machinations and conspiracies, going up to the highest level. Keeping track of all the characters (most of whom are historical figures), their motivations, and the elements that agree and conflict in each of their stories is intellectually stimulating. However, I wasn’t as emotionally drawn in to many of the events as I would’ve liked to be.
However, I’d challenge any reader to fail to feel for Sarah Blundy, caught as she is in a trap not of her own making. More than most books, this vividly brings to light the unenviable situation of simply being a woman without means in this time and place.
This was a very good novel – but as I said, my (very) high expectations led me to feel a little let down by it. I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes complex mysteries and a 17th-century historical setting.