Autumn Reading: ‘The Instance of the Fingerpost’ by Iain Pears
In the first flush of excitement at being out of graduate school, I read a good deal of unabashedly fluffy stuff this past autumn. I’ll be posting reviewlets of these books for the next few weeks.
Extraordinary. All through Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, that word kept flashing through my excited and engaged mind as I tried to unwind all his cleverly tangled plot-lines and characters. This was the most original and interesting novel I’ve read in a very long time and really can’t be called “fluffy,” as my Autumn Reading header has it. This book is the opposite of fluffy: it’s erudite, mind-boggling (in the best possible way), and startlingly, unbelievably, extraordinarily good. I wish every book I read could be as good as this one.
Instance, most basically, tells the story of a woman accused of a crime at Oxford in Restoration England. This part isn’t terribly innovative. What makes the book so exemplary is that Pears chooses to tell the exact same story four times from four different, equally unreliable perspectives. Each section brings new revelations and clarity to what happened, even as each narrator calls into question each of the preceding ones. The deepening wormholishness of the whole enterprise makes the read completely gripping and mentally invigorating. The book itself is entirely unexpected and brilliant.
In addition the book’s flawless structure, the writing is also terrific. Pears invests every character, even the passing ones, with clarity and emotion, borrowing historical figures and inventing his own characters with equal flare. The period is also beautifully realized and the style is both readable and intelligent.
I absolutely adored everything about this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. Be forewarned, however, it is no light read. Instance‘s hardback version runs to nearly 700 pages. It’s an investment, but if you’re remotely interested in historical fiction, you certainly won’t regret it. I just wish I could reexperience this book for the first time again; it was an extraordinary reading experience.