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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears

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To purchase An Instance of the Fingerpost

Title: An Instance of the Fingerpost
Author: Iain Pears
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 727 pages
Availability: An Instance of the Fingerpost - US
An Instance of the Fingerpost - UK
An Instance of the Fingerpost - Canada
Le cercle de la croix - France
Das Urteil am Kreuzweg - Deutschland
La quarta verità - Italia
La cuarta verdad - España

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Our Assessment:

B : very ambitious in its structure (and, ultimately, story), and reasonably successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 20/3/1998 Mark Harris
The Independent A 30/8/1997 Jane Jakeman
Independent on Sunday . 7/9/1997 Robert Mighall
The LA Times . 8/3/1998 Alfred MacAdam
The NY Times A 3/4/1998 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/3/1998 Andrew Miller
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 15/3/1998 Carey Harrison
Sunday Times . 31/8/1997 John Sutherland
The Times A+ 6/9/1997 Amanda Craig
TLS B- 29/8/1997 Heather O'Donoghue
The Washington Post A+ 8/3/1998 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Generally quite impressed, many very much so; endless comparisons to The Name of the Rose

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bring a supply of patience as well. For each ingenious detour along this winding road, there are also dead ends and tedious dirt paths. (Come to think of it, wasn't The Name of the Rose one of the most bought, least read books of its year ?) But to Pears' credit, those who drain to the last drop this bulging gourd of a whodunit will find themselves both sated and extremely surprised." - Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly

  • "This is a sprawling, rambling novel and if its tension is sometimes sacrificed for esoteric byways, that's the whole pleasure of it, really (.....) Pears manipulates the technical problems with skill, differentiating the voices, packing in bags of crinkum-crankum atmosphere. (...) The book is a deeply scholarly thriller, but with the learning worn lightly and all the elements of the plot eventually clicking together as smoothly as Sir Samuel Morland's 17th-century computer." - Jane Jakeman, The Independent

  • "The novel is self-consciously learned and serious, yet there are moments of sly humour. While many passages might have been lifted from obscure theological treatises, light relief is offered by what could easily have come from yesterday's Daily Mail. With pedant-defying scholarship it bludgeons the reader into accepting its authenticity by the very weight of historical detail. (...) This combination of erudition with ingenuity makes for satisfying reading." - Robert Mighall, Independent on Sunday

  • "The antiquarian urge to reconstruct places and customs haunts every page of his novel, but Pears never loses sight of his mystery. (...) Pears accomplishes something quite extraordinary in An Instance of the Fingerpost. He elevates the murder mystery to the category of high art. His novel will inevitably invite comparisons with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but Eco's equally long book is really an intellectual's revenge on moralists, in which a medieval monk, who considers humor sinful, refuses to copy Aristotle's treatise on comedy and is willing to kill to destroy the philosophical justification of comedy. Pears' story is more gritty; he writes closer to the genuine tradition of detective fiction and uses the historical setting not because it is quaint but because that age, except for technology, is so much like our own" - Alfred MacAdam, The Los Angeles Times

  • "If you liked Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, you should run to buy Iain Pears' lavishly erudite historical mystery An Instance of the Fingerpost. (...) Four rather long excursions into the same basic tale could grow wearisome, but Pears' effort never does. (...) If Eco's book was a sly demonstration of semiotics, the study of signs, Pear's is an exercise in theories of knowledge. Theological disputation, cryptography, religious dissent, medical experiments, moral philosophy, even the Turkish-Venetian war over Crete are all dealt with in what sometimes seems an entertaining encyclopedia of the second half of the 17th century." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "An Instance of the Fingerpost is a good deal more than a detective story. (...) Successful literary thrillers in the mold of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose are the stuff of publishers' dreams, and in Pears's novel they may have found a near-perfect example of the genre. It is literary -- if that means intelligent and well written -- and for the reader who likes to be teased, who likes his plots as baroque and ingenious as possible, An Instance of the Fingerpost will not disappoint. (...) Any book -- particularly one as long as this -- needs more than plot, however deft, to sustain a reader's attention. In the end, this other dimension must depend on the author's knack for characterization, and one of the difficulties with An Instance of the Fingerpost is that two, perhaps three, of the four narrators are men hard to like or care about. It was not until the final 150 pages that I found myself being moved." - Andrew Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book's crowning virtue is that none of its four book-length narrations ever steps outside the moral horizons of the late 17th century -- narrow, credulous and cruel as these may often be. (...) The book has been compared to Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, but readers enamored of the exotic should not expect to find in An Instance of the Fingerpost anything to match Eco's majestic wit, or the choking darkness of Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor or the gorgeous flights of fancy of Lawrence Norfolk's The Pope's Rhinoceros. Pears' book is a more modest but still enthralling achievement." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This is a novel that combines the simple pleasures of Agatha Christie with the intellectual subtlety of Umberto Eco. It is a landmark in the genre. Read it now, or mark it down to read in paperback. But don't let it pass by unread." - John Sutherland, Sunday Times

  • "An Instance of the Fingerpost is the kind of book which has you reading it by torchlight under the bedclothes. (...) Beneath the suspense and the effortless erudition, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a novel profoundly concerned with Christian thought. (The only thing wrong with this book is its title." - Amanda Craig, The Times

  • "This is not a book for the faint-hearted reader. (...) But a multiplicity of unreliable narrators makes it hard to draw the reader in (.....) In spite of its weight of historical learning and the dazzling complexity of its plot, however, Pears's novel remains a distant and oddly insubstantial pageant." - Heather O'Donoghue, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As haunting as The Name of the Rose and as gripping as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, it is a novel about deception and self-deception, about the scientific method and Jesuitical chicanery, above all about political expedience and religious transcendence. Every sentence in the book is as solid as brick -- and as treacherous as quicksand. (...) Throughout, Pears's sentences stay simple and clear, marked by a wonderful evenness of tone that grows quite hypnotic; he is able to suggest his four different speakers by only the slightest shifts of voice. He is not a flamboyant writer, and thus doesn't quote well out of context, but he can be efficiently sardonic. (...) Iain Pears has written an impressively original and audaciously imaginative intellectual thriller. Don't miss it." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       An Instance of the Fingerpost is a four-part novel, set in the second half of the seventeenth century -- mainly in 1663, not long after the fall of Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration, and mainly in Oxford. The murder of Dr. Robert Grove -- an Oxford Fellow, and an historical figure (as are quite a few of the characters in the novel) -- is the central plot point, though the story ranges far beyond that.
       The four parts of the novel each have a different narrator, presenting their account of events -- and then also as successive reactions to the previous accounts. The first part is narrated by a Venetian who introduces himself as Marco da Cola, who recounts coming to England in 1663 at the behest of his father, to look into a business partnership the family had in London which seems to have gone bad. The situation in London is, indeed, problematic, with little hope of being set right, but Cola does hang around in England to see what he might do -- though heading quickly for Oxford: he has a letter of introduction that might help him find some support there -- as he then does, even taken on by Robert Boyle as an assistant, so that he can earn a bit of money to finance his stay. Cola also makes the acquaintance of a desperate, willful, and impoverished -- but very attractive -- Sarah Blundy, whose mother is ill; when none of the local doctors are willing to help, Cola, who has had some medical training, steps in.
       It is Sarah Blundy who is then charged with the murder of Grove -- she had been in his employ, and recently been fired by him -- and tried for it. The question of her guilt isn't really first and foremost -- the 'trial' offers a case against her, but doesn't bother much with real investigation, and she ultimately even pleads guilty -- but it's fairly obvious she is not the responsible party; the question -- or questions -- that the story then explores (among much else) is who has reason to let this pass for truth -- and, of course, why. As to who the actual murderer is, various candidates make for obvious choices, with various actors in the story having good reason to believe (and generally not make too much of a fuss about) who the actual killer might be; Sarah makes a convenient scapegoat for many of them. As it turns out, quite a few parties have things to hide and reasons to allow events to unfold (and opinions to be formed) as they do.
       Cola's rather straightforward account, by an outsider briefly among a community and in a nation in considerable turmoil which he would seem to have nothing to do with and little more than visiting interest in (beyond that rather hopeless-sounding business situation in London, which indeed he can do little about) seems, on its plain face, to be trustworthy enough. There's no obvious reason for him to make things up, nor any real suggestion of any personal stakes beyond in seemingly minor matters such as that of getting credit for a possible scientific breakthrough. In the successive accounts, however, Cola's account is denounced as one that takes a great many liberties: the second narrator, Jack Prescott, finds Cola's memory "selective", while the third, John Wallis, goes much further, opening his account with the claim that Cola was: "the worst of men, the most savage of murderers, and the greatest of deceivers" -- and that his account was: "as fictional as Boccaccio and as unlikely as the rhymes of Tasso, though less finely hewn". The final narrator, Anthony Wood, also states bluntly early in his account: "Cola is a liar". But it also become clear to the reader that, while Cola might be an unreliable narrator, there is no reason not to think the others are also shaping their narratives for their own purposes; certainly the spin they put on some of the events suggests a great deal of self-interest is at work here. And, amusingly, as the accounts pile up, mistaken beliefs and misperceptions also come to light, explaining some of the wrong steps various characters take, and wrong conclusions they come to.
       The narrators cross paths in their four accounts, but these are not simply a fourfold re-telling of the same few events. Sarah Blundy figures prominently in Coal's account, but is much less significant figure in the next two -- only then to again be central in the final one. Prescott and Wallis, in particular, are also concerned with other matters, and it is Cola who is more in the background (and shadows) in their accounts.
       Unsurprisingly, the political -- and religious -- turmoil of the age figure prominently. So, for example, Prescott is consumed by little else than proving that his father was not a traitor -- driven essentially to madness by his quest (but his actions nevertheless having consequences for many of the others in the story). There's also the contest between Grove and another Oxford man, Thomas Ken, for a parish -- the only available such opening, at the time -- which Thomas is desperate to be named to (and which, of course, gives him good motive to see that Grove is in no position to get it ...).
       As Jack Prescott is reminded: "virtue is a lonely state in this age", and many of the characters understand that well, acting anything but virtuously. Sarah is the most complex character, strong and willful -- and with a reputation -- and surprisingly forthright; Pears asks a lot of the character, and makes it a bit hard on her in her only being seen through the eyes of the four narrators (and the gossip they hear) -- their attitudes ranging from heartlessly (ab)using her and spreading cruel false rumors about her to almost complete devotion. She is also revealed to be a vessel of sorts, and also treated as such by Pears; somewhat disappointingly in the conclusion, she is essentially reduced to an object, handled by others rather than able to act on her own (as she had so powerfully for much of the novel); in this sense she is a flawed (novel-)character, a bit too obviously put to use by Pears rather than being her own person -- unlike, say, the slippery Cola, who functions much better as a cog in the complex machinery of the novel.
       Hidden papers and codes also figure prominently in the story -- which itself of course also begs to be decoded, but only can be when the final pieces fall into place. As the final narrator, Wood, puts it about the three other accounts, they: "present only a simulacrum of verity" -- but they do so in interesting ways. Cola's account is both largely truthful but ultimately very misleading, due to what he leaves out (not least in how he concludes his account, summing up his departure from Oxford and the England in most cursory manner, when there was actually quite a bit more to it). A strong final section -- helped also of course in that provides all the answers -- brings the book to a solid conclusion, though Pears stretches things rather far in just how tidy he makes it all, both with the story of Sarah Blundy and the great secret as to what was actually at stake here, nothing less than the future of England and the course of history. For all the interesting historical detail and color in the novel, Pears doesn't offer quite enough to prepare readers for the magnitude of the ultimate reveal; there's simply not enough focus on the relevant characters (at least with regards to this) and how it might have come to this potential crossroad.
       The two middle sections are also somewhat frustrating because of the unpleasant self-servingness of the two narrators. Both Prescott and Wallis are, in different ways, less concerned with facts than their appearance, and how these can serve them, with Prescott wanting to prove his father was not a traitor and Wallis always thinking he knows best. Their actions are ignoble and even ugly, and while Pears makes a good show of them justifying themselves -- Prescott helped by obviously also being, in increasing part, delusional -- the tone still feels a bit off here too often.
       An Instance of the Fingerpost is an impressive, enormous tapestry, and does present a neat picture of especially Oxford life but also the political (and connectedly-religious) conflicts in the England of that time. On the whole, Pears structures the narrative -- and how the pieces are revealed in it -- very well: to say this is a story simply told four times over would give a completely wrong picture of the much more complex (and less wearying) presentation that's actually on offer.
       Disappointingly, the accounts don't always ring entirely true -- and not in the way Pears wants them not to (which is: deceptively) -- with Pears struggling some in making his voices sound sufficiently different, and falling short with parts (like Wallis' infatuation with a servant, whose death he comes to blame Cola for). The use of so many real figures is also occasionally problematic -- well handled, in part, but also feeling occasionally too name-dropping, as with the (limited) use of Robert Boyle. The odd mix of stakes here -- from petty-personal to matters of 'honor' (which can so easily seem like the ridiculous concern it is) to the (potentially) nothing less than world- and history-changing -- also ranges rather too wide, as Pears really stuffs everything into his novel. Indeed, the final big reveal feels almost like an unnecessary add-on as there really isn't quite enough to prepare readers for it -- unlike many of the smaller reveals, which are truly covered in depth.
       It's a quite good read, but relies too much on the would-be clever four-fold unfolding of the story, which is accomplished, but, in its details, not quite good enough. At times the narrative does grow a bit wearisome, and not all the narrators' voices are entirely successful -- the middle two parts definitely feel strained at times -- but there is consistently enough to it to hold the reader's attention and interest. Mind you, Pears sets the bar very high for himself and there's not that much shame in falling somewhat short of all this ambition; An Instance of the Fingerpost is certainly a thorough, colorful immersion in history and a fine enough read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 March 2020

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An Instance of the Fingerpost: Reviews: Other books by Iain Pears under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Iain Pears was born in 1955. He attended Oxford and has written numerous books.

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© 2020 the complete review

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