"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost
Let me qualify: this is a great book for people who are both patient and curious. The former because it's 700 pages long and written in a the long-winded style of the 17th century. The latter because it's a murder mystery that not only reveals who did it, but also an amazing wealth of information about life and thought in Oxford in the 1660s.
This is a truly dynamic setting, because the place was crawling with now-famous scientists and philosophers - although, as Iain Pears shows brilliantly, the two were one-and-the-same back then. The characters who are interested in experimenting in science are also wedded to religious doctrine and manage to mix the two in really astounding ways. Instead of just telling us what people ate or how they dressed, Pears reveals how they thought, and how different their assumptions were to ours. There is one scene in particular of a chemistry experiment which shows how rudimentary the scientific method was and how exciting it was for people steeped in both Christian and ancient Greek dogma to discover these new ways of thinking.
The theme of scientific inquiry and truth (which fits so nicely into a mystery novel) intersects with a political strain. The book is set just a few years after the end of the Cromwellian era in England, a time when religious and political tensions were running very very high. Pears gives us four different first-person narrators, whose perspectives highlight different aspects of the era: Marco da Cola, a gentleman physician from Italy, Jack Prescott, a young man trying to prove his father was not a traitor to the newly restored king, Dr. Wallis, a very paranoid cryptographer who's enmeshed in both the old and the new regime, and Anthony Wood, an antiquary and historian who claims to be impartial in his writing of the events of the books.
As it turns out, none of them are totally impartial, and they all have different reasons for writing their versions of the murder and its solution. As I said, it takes a lot of patience to get through the same narrative four times and have the answer to the who-done-it question delayed for about 600 pages. But it's really such a rewarding read, because the four stories turn out to be very different versions, and Pears does a masterful job layering perspectives and timing revelations so that you are always on the brink of finding out another crucial bit of information.
The writing is old-fashioned, of course because it's written in first-person, but once you let yourself sink into it, it's very easy to read. I recommend this for a long week in winter with many cups of tea. Reading it in one weekend was like running a long-distance race (luckily one I've been training for the last six months), but I still appreciated this book immensely for what it taught me about the era, for giving me another amazing example of historical fiction, and for telling a good story that left me really satisfied.