TITLE: AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST
AUTHOR: IAIN PEARS
“When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost show the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed these Instances are found amongst that Evidence already set down.” – Francis Bacon.
I almost always write my own summaries of the books I read. I’ve decided to make an exception for this book though; I just don’t think I can do the contents of this book justice without giving away too much of the plot. So here’s a copy of the blurb as it appears on the inside sleeve of the copy I read:
“We are in Oxford in the 1660’s, a time and place, of great intellectual, scientific, religious and political ferment. Robert Grove, a fellow of New College, is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder. We hear about events surrounding his death from four witnesses: Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood-transfusion; Jack Prestcott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer to both Cromwell and Charles II, a mathematician, theologian and inveterate plotter; and Anthony Wood, the famous Oxford antiquary. Each witness tells their version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth.”
In November, when I finished “The Prince” by Tiffany Reisz I tweeted about my frustration about the monumental cliff-hanger the book ended on. I was delighted as well as surprised to have her reply to my tweet and admit that she is the queen of the “mind-fuck”. Although I won’t know the exact extend to which she fucked with her readers’ minds in that book and its two prequels until I read The Mistress, the fourth and final title in this part of her “Original Sinners” series, I am inclined to take her word for it. When asked, she recommended “An Instance of the Fingerpost” as one of the ultimate “mind-fuck” books she had ever read. This comment, of course, meant that curiosity got the better of me and I requested the book from my library. All I can say now that I have finished the book is WOW! This is indeed a book in which the reader is taken for a ride, given one impression only to have it demolished in a later part of the book. This book is a work of genius. The reader is presented with a mystery and subsequently given four different accounts of the events that lead up to and followed it. The four parts are told by four different narrators all of whom play a pivotal role in the proceedings. The four men sharing their stories all share from their own perspective and with their own interests colouring what they do and don’t share. And all four men come up with different answers and conclusions. Since only one of our narrators actually has all available information, only one of them shares the full story of what exactly has happened and why, and the reader is held in suspense until the very last page of the book.
What makes this book so incredibly clever is that the author plays a completely fair game with the reader. He doesn’t cheat and confront the reader with a lot of new, yet essential, information in the last few pages of the book. Most of the clues as to what is happening can be found in the first three accounts. I would defy anybody though to only read those parts and try to come up with all the right answers for I don’t think it is possible. This book plays with the reader at every turn and does this in such a way that the book gets ever more intriguing with each subsequent page; that which appears straight-forward turns out to be anything but.
As a mystery this book is intriguing, well plotted and completely engrossing. As a work of historical fiction it is fascinating as well as plausible, not in the least because most of the characters encountered in the book did really live at the time the story takes place.
Of course the second half of the 17th century is a fascinating time to read about even without the mystery this book provides. England is a country trying to find a balance that will prevent it from descending into civil war once again and modern science is starting to emerge in a time when every new discovery still had to be attributed to the greater glory of God and superstition was still rife. It makes for a wonderful mix of progress and repression and it was with wonder and an occasional smile that I read about obviously very clever people with ideas and discoveries that were nothing sort of genius falling back on their faith to explain what they had produced through their own intelligence.
I could go on raving about this well written, well plotted and well executed book, but I will stop myself. I just want to say two more things:
- Read this book if you haven’t already done so! And,
- Thank you Miss Reisz for pointing me in the direction of this fabulous book!