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An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Vintage (paperback edition), 1998


I bought my copy of this bestselling, critically-acclaimed novel when it came out in paperback in 1998, but never got round to reading it before now.

Enjoyment factor

Ambitious doesn't begin to describe this novel. Set in Oxford during the Restoration, it tells the same story from four different perspectives, weaving together the lives of real characters (with artistic license), three of whom are clearly unreliable narrators.

The plot revolves around the suspected murder of a fellow of New College, providing both an element of suspense and a brilliantly simple device on which to hang multiple other narratives.

Overall, it really is an astonishing achievement, as reflected in the reviews on publication. Plot-wise, Pears doesn't slip up once, and his command of voice is impeccable across all four narratives. Restricting himself to largely historical characters, albeit depicted loosely, is also a feat to pull off.

Above all, he combines an in-depth knowledge of the political intrigues of the period with the more pedestrian culture wars - such as whether or not a young man should adopt the new fashion of wearing a wig; as well as lots of perceptive inter-generational tension. Pears wears his history delightfully lightly and it's this kind of detail that really brings the period to life.

It left me thinking ...

That I don't think I've every come across such an ambitious novel, let alone one in which the author pulls it off in all respects.

That so much of what I know about history is learned through reading fiction. The Restoration was never my strong point, but I now feel as if I was there.

That culture wars and inter-generational tensions are nothing new. There are plenty of in-jokes about young versus older people's attitudes and fashions which would resonate now - doubly interesting because this was first published 27 years ago (hardback 1997), proving that these kinds of frictions are timeless.

That 700 pages passes quickly when the writing is this spectacular.

In short, I'm glad that I saved this treat for 26 years!

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