‘Rustication’ by Charles Palliser
If you like unreliable teenage narrators, then strap yourselves in for the bumpy ride that is Charles Palliser’s ode to the Victorian sensationalist novel, Rustication.
The book tells the story of Richard Shenstone — our 17-year-old, opium-addicted, wildly selfish narrator — who arrives home from Cambridge having been “sent down,” or rusticated, under mysterious circumstances and forbidden by the college from returning. After his father’s death (of which Richard was not informed until much later), Richard’s mother and sister, Effie, now live in abject poverty in a falling-down old family house at the edge of a moor. Richard can’t understand why any of this is the case, much like his mother and sister can’t understand what he’s even doing there. Shouldn’t he be at school making the family proud?
Meanwhile, a mysterious madman starts to terrorize the neighborhood by disemboweling pregnant animals, writing crude letters to ladies in the area, and threatening the local earl’s son with violent death. With his stunning obliviousness and propensity to wander around at night after taking too much opium, Richard is maneuvered into being the prime suspect — but by whom?
In his own utterly daffy way, Richard eventually puts the pieces together, but not before you want to wring his foolish little neck and possibly throttle his wishy-washy mother, a source of much misunderstanding.
Rustication leans heavily on Richard’s obvious unreliability, presenting the story as an old journal found by a 20th-century historian. As Richard figures things out and learns new details, you go along with him, becoming increasingly frustrated as you realize (a lot sooner than he does) just how much he doesn’t know. The framing device of the modern-day historian could have been used more interestingly, with maybe footnotes or interjections with other sources, but instead the historian only appears at the start and end of the book, explaining where and how he found the document.
This isn’t the kind of mystery where you can figure out what happened based on clues unintentionally scattered throughout the narrative by your unreliable narrator (a la Wilkie Collins). No, this is more like plodding around the dark with an idiot just hoping he eventually manages to shine some light on something that matters. Accordingly, I found the book too long by half. Richard’s cluelessness worked well as a set-up, but faltered as a plot device for the middle chunk of the book. And by the end…well, you almost don’t care who set who up by then and just want Richard to get out there already!
At any rate significantly better than my recent adventures in Cormoran Strike territory, Rustication is good at being gothic, creepy, and extremely Victorian. That said, Richard Shenstone is an incredibly frustrating character, let alone narrator, and I rather wish Effie, Richard’s enigmatic sister, had been given her say and perspective. She’s a far more interesting character: an ambitious young woman of marriageable age suddenly brought down several social pegs and forced to live in poverty and work as a governess (gasp, the horror!). When pushed, what is she capable of?
I’d recommend Rustication as a dark autumn evening read; it’s creepy and mostly entertaining, although you’ll almost certainly tire of Richard Shenstone far before the end of the story.