One day I shall read ‘The Quincunx’, Charles Palliser’s much lauded, neo Victorian debut novel; but it’s such a very big book that I know that I have to save it until I can give it the attention that I am sure it deserves.
I loved the novel that followed that one. ‘The Unburied’ wasn’t quite so long, and it was the most wonderful pastiche of the Victorian novel; a complex mystery, that came to light and was paid out to a conclusion when, in 1919, records that had lain in the Thurchester Records Office were unsealed.
When I saw ‘Rustication’, another neo Victorian novel, not nearly as long as that one that came before, also drawn from documents held by the Thurchester Records Office.
It’s a much simpler affair: this one young man’s account of a dark time in his life, recorded in his diary.
In December 1863, on a wild and dark night, seventeen year-old Richard Shenstone, was travelling to a new home, a dilapidated and apparently haunted house in the Kentish marshlands. His family fallen terrible since he had left his old home for Cambridge, since his clergyman father’s sudden death; and he had been sent down – rusticated – for smoking opium and being involved, in a way he was disinclined to explain, in the suicide of a similarly intoxicated friend.
His mother was not pleased to see him; and she would not explain why he had not been called home for his father’s funeral, or why she had lost so much and been brought so much lower than she should have. All she wanted was for him to leave.
His sister, caring only for her own position, wanted the same.
He didn’t want to stay but he had nowhere else to go, and he wasn’t prepared to go until he had answers to his many questions about his family’s circumstances.
His mother and his sister maintained a cold silence; the only warmth in his new home came from Betsy, the new, young maidservant, who sometimes allowed him to make late-night visits to her garret.
It is not long after his arrival, that anonymous letters begin to circulate among his neighbours. The letter are obscene, they are threating, and it seems that they always contain at least a grain of truth. And there are attacks on animals, and other strange happenings, carried out in the dark of the night.
Shenstone is regarded with suspicion and so he sets out to find the culprit. He considers Miss Bittlestone, a poor relation of the local rectory family. He considers the enigmatic Mrs Paytress, who has only recently settled in the district, and whose history is unclear. And he considers his sister, Euphemia, who he comes to believe is involved with the bastard son of the local earl.
But can he find the answers he needs before the net closes on him?
The plot is wonderfully complex; there are twists and turns, there are secrets and lies, and there are many questions of authenticity and reliability to consider. The atmosphere and the evocation of the period is pitch perfect, and the detail is so very, very rich.
But I found a great deal wrong with this book.
The story of the anonymous letters and the animal attacks is reminiscent of ‘Arthur and George’ by Julian Barnes. I know that story was inspired by real history, and that this book might have been inspired by the same history, but I didn’t want to read it again. Was the author not aware, or did he not care?
I also have to say that there was too much in this book that was familiar from other neo Victorian novels. It might be that I have read too many of them now, but I am inclined to think that Charles Palliser was once ahead of his contemporaries, but that he hasn’t moved forward, and that they have caught up with him now.
And then there was the diarist. His voice rang true, but I found it difficult to care for this self-obsessed, sexually obsessed young man, and his account felt so one-dimensional. There was a fine story of a troubled family at the heart of this novel, and it would have felt so much richer if only more documents had been archived with the account that I read.
The details of the diarist’s sexual fantasies were gratuitous. The animal attacks were not gratuitously described, but I really didn’t think that they were necessary at all.
I also have to question that diary itself. I didn’t believe that the young man at the centre of the story would have written in his diary as he did.
Of course he could be unreliable, the diary could be a fabrication; it’s an interesting possibility but I can’t quite believe it as that either.
But I really don’t want to go on thinking about this book.
I hate having to write so negatively, but, when I pick up a book that I expect to love and find much to hate I have to.
Charles Palliser still writes and plots brilliantly; but I have to question his choice of material and his attention to this book as a whole.