AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST PDF

Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad. Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader. Innocuous and, to the narrator, unimportant revelations completely overturn the earlier version of the tale.

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Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad.

Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader. Innocuous and, to the narrator, unimportant revelations completely overturn the earlier version of the tale. The result is at times confusing and exasperating, but always nail-biting and exciting.

For a reviewer, however, it is hard to discuss the plot in detail without revealing things better left for the reader to uncover, so I will tread carefully with a wariness for spoilers. This tangle-thicket of a plot would, of course, be undone by bad writing. Fortunately, Pears writes superbly well. He is able to use the trope of a foreigner in a strange land to introduce us deftly to Oxford of the s.

True, he cannot resist the old joke about continental attitudes to British food and Shakespeare, but, to be fair, who could? His protagonists explore our city at the dawn of an intellectual revolution, rubbing shoulders with Boyle and Locke, but also at a time of stifling, smug religious orthodoxy; of secret, suppressed heresies and of political tension. Pears portrays the unease of this society expertly. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.

The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment. The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot.

At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity.

This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic. He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot. A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself.

All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost

Riverhead Books. The author, a British journalist and the author of six previous detective stories, brilliantly exploits the stormy, conspiracy-heavy history of England after the death of Oliver Cromwell to fashion a believable portrait of 17th-century political and intellectual life as well as a whodunit of almost mesmerizing complexity. These range from the obese and greedy Earl of Clarendon, prime minister to the restored monarch, Charles II, to the Oxford apothecary who was landlord to the chemist Robert Boyle. Pears then throws in a few entirely fictitious people, including two of his four narrators. But whether entirely or only partly imagined, all of the members of this large and unruly cast are finely individualized, craggily differentiated characters, almost biblical in their moral and intellectual variety. Cola is a kind of dilettante physician who soon finds himself in Oxford keeping company with the likes of Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and Richard Lower, a pioneering doctor who made early experiments in blood transfusion. Again, is that true?

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AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST

Reading Guide Questions Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers! The four narrators of An Instance of the Fingerpost illustrate that there is never just one side to a story, that an event can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Did you find one narrator inherently more trustworthy than another? What qualities suggest a credible narrator, and how does Iain Pears play off of our assumptions in his characterizations of Marco da Cola, Jack Prestcott, John Wallis, and Anthony Wood?

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