Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Quincunx - Charles Palliser

Note: This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris where I am delighted to announce I have just become a fully fledged Book Fox.

Read: December/January 2007

Picture the scene: it is early December, Christmas lights blink at you as you walk through throngs of shoppers, laden down with presents for your loved ones. The air feels charged with an electric buzz. Across the cold tarmac the sweet sound of carollers makes you yearn for peace, quiet and a glass of mulled wine. Your shoulders ache, feet are sore. Then, just as you think the shopping is finally finished you are reminded of the one person you always forget, that person you really should buy something for. That person you never know what to buy for. Well never fear, for I have the perfect solution to all your woes.

The Quincunx is absolutely, positively, the perfect book for winter reading. Weighty as a draft excluder, thick as treacle, enticing as an open fire, you pluck it from the shelf a devour it. No book I have read provides such indulgent enjoyment. Fast-paced and exhilarating, it lures you in and takes you on a tour of early-nineteenth century England, with a conspiracy so enthralling 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. It is one of those novels that could keep you company all winter, packed as it is with a horde of devious, dastardly, lovable, and mysterious characters. But despite its 1200 pages, you’ll probably be finished in a couple of weeks.

Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a book, this is what I suggest. The Quincunx is a proper story: epic in scope, with companionable characters, and a suitable dose of stimulation for the grey matter. I have never met anyone who had a bad word to say about it.

The plot follows Johnnie Huffam as he battles to stave off hidden conspiracies and outmanoeuvre his relatives in order to obtain the inheritance that is rightfully his. But in the meantime there is the small matter of just trying to stay alive…

It all comes down to a scrap of paper: the codicil the codicil to a will written half a century earlier, a will which has provoked greed, hatred, murder, and lunacy since before it was written. As enemies circle and the fate of the inheritance moves steadily towards resolution in Chancery, Johnnie must find out who he is, and his place in the wider familial quincunx, before it is too late.

If you like epic fiction you’ll love it. Although its setting makes it ideally suited to winter reading (why is it that when we think of the nineteenth century we think almost exclusively of cold grey streets, fog, thick overcoats, and families huddling around the fire? Is it because Christmas as we know it is such a nineteenth century invention, characterised so clearly in Dickens’s Christmas Carol? Or perhaps the smog of the Industrial Revolution has settled on the collective imagination?) it is really a novel for any time or place in which you want to lose yourself entirely in a great story.

But The Quincunx is not just a riotous plot-driven adventure – though that, surely is more than enough. It is a pastiche of the mid-nineteenth century novel, the kind made famous by the likes of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Indeed John Huffam, takes his name from Charles John Huffam Dickens’s middle names, and the namesakes also share the same date of birth. However, these references are just the tip of the iceberg. The pastiche is there in almost everything from the characters, to the settings, to the central concept of the book itself: a debate between the concepts of law and equity, that is between what is written in law and what is deemed equitable or fair.

It is this pastiche that is most often discussed in regard to The Quincunx. But the term doesn’t really do the book justice. Far from simply paraphrasing and satirising classic authors, Palliser takes the skills, interests and characteristics of the mid-nineteenth century novel and perfects them, distils them, concentrates them, creating a novel which is more Dickensian than Dickens, more Collins than Collins ever was. It is everything you could want in a Victorian novel: episodic, all encompassing, and packed with denouements at every turn.
Added to this nineteenth century focus, Palliser uses a host of modernist devices including an unreliable narrator, inconclusive ending, and concealed structure to make the mystery all the more deceptive. There is a whole hidden structure which revolves around the number five, the quin of the title. There are five related families over five generations, whose five crests form a quincunx, an arrangement of five objects with one in each corner of a square and one at the centre. The novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters. In a review, this may seem irrelevant, but within this carefully designed mathematical structure are held many of the fundamental mysteries of The Quincunx. It is one of those books you could study for years and still not grasp fully. The amazing extent of this planning is made particularly clear in Palliser’s fascinating, if a little self congratulatory, Afterword to the current Penguin edition.

When I started reading The Quincunx on Boxing Day a few years ago, I thought I was in for a long period of concerted reading. I was anxious, uncertain, and wary due to the amazing length of it. Yet only six days later, about an hour into the new year it was finished. In the intervening days I barely got out of bed for anything, let alone to welcome in the New Year. And when I had finished, I found myself sad and lonely as at the passing of a friend. Even at 1200 pages The Quincunx is nowhere near long enough. I love every single word of it. And that is in spite it containing three of the things I most dislike in a book: small print, long paragraphs of text, and chapters which start on the same page as the previous one finished. Were it not for the engaging plot, it would be one of those dispiriting books in which just turning a page feels like a great achievement. But as it is the pages fly by as unnoticed as the minutes turning to hours.

For some the often lengthy discussions about law and equity could prove hard work, but I found them illuminating. At times Johnnie’s narration is a little mature and astute for such a young boy, but then what most exemplifies The Quincunx is a need to question everything, including Johnnie himself. This is particularly evident as Johnnie grows closer to his goal, and begins to realise that neither good nor bad can be taken at face value, and that trust is a dangerous emotion to give in to. And in the end, despite being focused on the absurdity of familial inheritance in a closed hierarchical society, the reader is left unsure as to the moral fortitude of its hero. After all he has seen, will his life simply offer yet more evidence for the selfishness of man?

You’ll just have to read it to find out.

So let’s return to where we were at the beginning of this review: it is December, you are out late and just need to find one more present before you can go home. Now you know exactly what to do: make a beeline for the nearest bookshop and place an order for The Quincunx (ISBN: 9780140177626). Who knows, if it is a good bookshop they might even have one in stock. That done you can return home invigorated, feeling somehow that the mood of winter has been captured in a series of black marks on cream paper.

And who said anything about giving it as a present?

10 out of 10

5 comments:

Sarah said...

Congratulations on becoming a full fox - do you have a regular day for posting?

Sam Ruddock said...

Thanks Sarah. I always have a review on the first Wednesday of the month but may now contribute more. Will have to see.

tyreejcoffelt said...
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CarolineG said...

Sam, found my way over here after browsing on VL and I am smiling at finding another passionate Quincunx fan! Is a long time since I read it now - mst be easily 14 years - but at the time I bored everyone around me with my constant attempts to thrust a copy into their hands. I think I'm going to have to re-read it now, after you reminding me of its pleasures...

Sam Ruddock said...

Hi Caroline, great to hear a fellow Quincunx devotee. I have met few (if any) people who, having read it, haven't been similarly afflicted with the urge to carry it around handing it out to random passers by.

Hope you enjoy the re-read as much as the first read. I think I may save a re-read for the 2010 festive season.