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.

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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.

Rustication by Charles Palliser (2013)

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.

Rustication 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.