The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (1989)

The Quincunx is an enticing, entrancing recreation of a Victorian novel, written in such perfect period prose and holding so much that is typical of the Victorian novel that you might well believe that Charles Palliser had excavated it and not sat down to write late in the twentieth century.

I skated around it for quite some time, because it is such a very big book, and I read a couple of the author’s later, shorter works; but now that I have read this book I have to say that completely outclasses them.

The story begins with a young boy, named John, who lives with his mother, Mary, in an English village. They are not wealthy but they are not poor either, and so they are able to live quietly and quite comfortably. As he grows up John comes to realise that the way they live is not normal and that his mother is keeping secrets; that there must be reasons why she is so very protective of him, why he isn’t allowed to play with other children, why anyone who comes to their door is unwelcome.

quincunx

When a relative he has never met dies – and after he has broken more than one of his mother’s rules – things go terribly wrong for Mary and John. They lose what small capital they had, Mary comes to believe that they are no longer safe in their home, and so mother and son set out for London.

Things go wrong again, and Mary does not know who they can trust; who is really her friend and who is in the employ of the man she believes to be her enemy?

The plot is much too elaborate to explain, but it spins around a simple scrap of paper: the codicil to a will written half a century earlier. The will and the codicil had implications for five families; they had been written for unhappy reasons in unhappy circumstances, and they had created greed, hatred, madness and murder in five generations. They affected John, but he didn’t know how, he didn’t who his father was, and he didn’t know who his friends and enemies were.

He did know that he was in danger, caught in a complicated conspiracy, and that he had to work out how to survive and claim the inheritance that he believed was his.

Every kind of character, every scenario, every setting, you might think of finding in a Victorian novel is to be found in this book.

Sometimes the plot lingers, but I found the details of day to day living and how practical problems were faced quite fascinating. At other times it rattles along, almost so quickly that I wished I might have spent a little more time with some places and people, though what happened next always captured my interest and didn’t allow me to miss the things that had gone by.

The plot is relentless, always focused on John’s story; mainly through his own first person account, broken only when he hears the stories of others and when an omniscient narrator steps from the shadows to show scenes that will affect John’s progress.

It’s construction is so elaborate and so clever.

The atmosphere is wonderful, and this really is the perfect book for dark winter evenings.

Imagine that Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens sat down together with all of the time in the world to create a masterpiece, drawing on their own greatest works and the great works of their contemporaries, each writing to their strengths and reining in the other’s weaknesses, and trying things they has never tried before, to wonderful effect.

This feels a little like that.

There really is everything you could want in a Victorian novel, and I caught echoes of many beloved stories. And then there are things that feel a little more modern but work so well: a narrator who may not be wholly reliable, questions that are left unanswered, an ending that lets the reader draw their own conclusion, and a structure that slowly moves into the light ….

There are five related families over five generations, whose five crests form a quincunx, an arrangement of five objects with one in each corner of a square and one at the centre. The novel itself is divided into five parts, and each part is divided into five books and then five chapters.

There are so many small but significant details. I spotted some of them but I am sure that I missed others, and that this is a novel that would reveal much more on a second reading.

It has failings. John and Mary could both, for different reasons, be infuriating. Occasionally a character or a situation was compromised a little for the sake of the plot. The later chapters were less subtle than what had come before. There was at least one unanswered question that needed an answer: the question of John’s parentage.

But, as a whole, The Quincunx worked wonderfully well.

It is more a book for the head than a book for the heat.

And yet I loved that quite near the end I came to realise that it was also a coming of age story.

I read it much more quickly that I thought I would. I had to keep turning the pages. I was intrigued. I had to know. I couldn’t quite explain how all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together, but I have a good idea, and I think that it works.

I was completely caught up in the world of this book, I miss it now that it is over, and I can’t help wondering about the lives of many of the characters I met beyond the pages of the book.

29 thoughts on “The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (1989)

  1. This is one I’d love to read even though it’s a huge book. I was going to try ‘Rustication’ first as a ‘tester’ but I notice that you only gave it two stars on GR, which is worrying.

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    1. I found ‘Rustication’ very disappointing and I couldn’t help thinking that Palliser had lost interest in Victorian pastiches. ‘The Unburied’ is better, and definitely worth reading, but I have to agree with all of those who say this is his masterpiece.

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  2. What a great review. When I read THE QUINCUNX I stayed up late at night and had a difficult time putting the book down. You’ve really distilled the essence of it in your superb evaluation. Thank you!

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  3. I remembered this coming out at around the same time as Byatt’s Possession (and I just checked, that was published in 1990) so a prime time for the ‘Victorian novel’. It sounds like you got a lot out of this big read – maybe a perfect one to read over the holiday season when there are blocks of time to devote to it.

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  4. I’m pleased you enjoyed this – I thought you probably would! I read it years ago and can’t remember much about it now, apart from being surprised by all the plot twists. It’s on my list for a re-read in the near future. 🙂

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  5. This sounds wonderful – a perfect winter read. It’s one of my other half’s favourite books and he has it on his book shelves. There can be no excuse for me not reading it!

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