Iain Pears’ intricately plotted, highly intelligent and very enjoyable novel, An Instance of the Fingerpost, explores the troubling and problematic side of the historical movement labelled with the smug term ‘The Enlightenment’.
Set largely in Oxford, the main fascination and brilliance of the novel is its supremely confident structure and plot. The book is actually a single story told four times, by four different narrators. Each of them has their own reasons for not telling the truth: they have a desire to obscure or hide from their actions; their perception is coloured by religious or political preconceptions; or they are — quite simply — mad. The end result is that you simply don’t know the real nature of the plot’s events once you have finished.
Described in this way, the novel sounds quite dispiriting, but Pears is deft at teasing and enchanting the reader. Innocuous and, to the narrator, unimportant revelations completely overturn the earlier version of the tale. The result is at times confusing and exasperating, but always nail-biting and exciting. For a reviewer, however, it is hard to discuss the plot in detail without revealing things better left for the reader to uncover, so I will tread carefully with a wariness for spoilers.
This tangle-thicket of a plot would, of course, be undone by bad writing. Fortunately, Pears writes superbly well. He is able to use the trope of a foreigner in a strange land to introduce us deftly to Oxford of the 1660s. True, he cannot resist the old joke about continental attitudes to British food and Shakespeare, but, to be fair, who could? His protagonists explore our city at the dawn of an intellectual revolution, rubbing shoulders with Boyle and Locke, but also at a time of stifling, smug religious orthodoxy; of secret, suppressed heresies and of political tension. This is a world where a man can jump in one sentence from being a highly analytical and insightful mathematician to a paranoid bigot thinking that all papists can be nothing other than duplicitous and sinister ne’er-do-wells scheming to bring down the kingdom. Pears portrays the unease of this society expertly. For all that the aristocrats are bullying and convinced of their superiority, for all that pompous priests feather their nests, we are always aware of the cataclysm of the wars fought a generation before and the threatened ‘world turned upside-down’. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.
Pears’ characters are deliberately a ‘mixed bag’. The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment. The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot. At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity. This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. The reader can only take so much of this, however, and I was certainly relieved when the baton was handed on to the historian Anthony à Wood, the fourth narrator. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic. He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot. By the time we come to his section, however, we are disinclined to take anything at face value, let alone Mr Wood’s rather peculiar account.
A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself. All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily.
‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £9.99.