Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Quincunx - Charles Palliser

Read: January 2007

We have all finished a book that we really enjoyed, only to find ourselves sad and lonely as at the passing of a friend. Even at 1200 pages I finished this glorious picaresque novel and felt bereft. Do not be put off by its length, for The Quincunx is a vast, symmetrical novel in which the startling scope of the narrative and setting is only matched by the dexterity of the author. Charles Palliser has created a compelling, exciting and fast paced novel in which the author’s talent lies in the deliberate ambiguity of plot and meaning. It is so good, I read it in 6 days, barely able to draw myself away from it to spend Christmas with my family.

It is the story of Little Johnnie, as he fights to stave off hidden conspiracies and obtain the inheritance that is rightfully his. As Johnnie struggles to resist the cunning machinations of his enemies and withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, he is forced to travel the length and breadth of early Victorian England desperately trying to untangle the truth before it settles around his shoulders and strangles the life and future out of him. In the process, Johnnie meets people who transform his perspective, and slowly, piece by piece, he discovers who he is, and his place in the wider familial quincunx..

I love The Quincunx. It is one of those rare novels which brings joy to anyone who reads it. Three people told me I had to read it, including one prominent sales rep for a major publisher who goes slightly dewy eyed when it is mentioned. He has read it five times at least, can recall stories about it being the second ever Waterstone's 'Book of the Month' when it was published back in 1989. These passionate responses are thoroughly understandable for it really is this good. I have never known of a book which is received as rapturously by those I have recommended it to as this.

There are so many ways of reading this book that it would be impossible to conceive of them all. For what it’s worth, I read it as a battle between the legal and moral concepts of equity and justice. John is born into a secure little Eden from which he is chased away and spends much of the novel amidst the squalor and poverty of Victorian London (hell). Come the end of the book he returns to his ancestral home, that which all the intrigue has been centred on, and discovers a cryptic message: Et in Arcadia Ego (here we are in Arcadia). It is a moment of realisation that not everything is black and white, and perhaps, for good or bad, nothing will ever live up to our expectations. John has grown up and not all is as it may appear. But while the book has been focused on the absurdity of familial inheritance in a closed hierarchical society (with John apparently representing the morality of equity and justice), the reader is left unsure as to the moral fortitude of its hero. What have been his motives and how will his inheritance change him? After all he has seen, will his life offer yet more evidence for the selfishness of man? There are tantalising hints but much is left unsaid.

The Quincunx is a fast and exhilarating tour of Victorian society, with a conspiracy so thick and devious that it will keep you guessing long into the night – because once you get into the plot, there will be no putting it down until you are finished and the mysteries have finally been solved.

10 out of 10

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