Friday, February 11, 2011

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

A hefty (almost 700 page) epistolary novel set in Restoration Oxford. The dual plot involves shadowy political intrigue and the circumstances surrounding the trial and execution of a young woman purported to be, by turns, a witch and a whore. The four narratives are, by necessity, somewhat contradictory, giving the novel a Rashomon quality as we attempt to fit together a true picture of what happened during that brief period in the midst of a bitterly cold English winter.

Pears' characterizations are finely drawn, with some individuals standing out quite vividly. A couple of the narrators are rather repugnant, however, most of the motivations and circumstances are clarified in the final narrative, that of an Oxford antiquarian. For me, the narrative did tend to drag in a few places, but not enough to abandon the effort. It helps to have some understanding of the English Commonwealth period and the circumstances surrounding the restoration of Charles II. While I wouldn't describe this as a philosophical novel, the currents of discovery relating to physiology and empiricism do play their parts, with cameo appearances by Robert Boyle and John Locke.

I will admit to being somewhat dissatisfied with the conclusion, which veers into a somewhat heavy handed mysticism. I would have no problem with a metaphysical gloss on the chain of events, but Pears' clarification of the identity of Sarah Blundy, one of the best drawn personalities in the narrative, strains credibility. Still, an enjoyable and well written tome for a winter's night reading.