An Instance of the Fingerpost
By Iain Pears
An Instance of the Fingerpost was my first Iain Pears novel, its title taken from Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. After overcoming a slow start, I was glad I persevered with this near 700-page classic.
We journey through conspiracy-laden 17th century England with four separate narrators, all with crystal clear voices, varying degrees of involvement in a murder and, of course, credible levels of motivation.
Revenge, jealousy, ambition, injustice are applied with the skill of a master at work with theoretical debates aplenty. Pears’ talent lies in convincing you to use your judgement of the character, lulling you into their world of truths, half-truths and nothing-like-the-truths – are of which are believable.
He draws complexity from the poor as much as the educated and his writing draws no moral position based on society or class. Indeed, some of the most emotional scenes involve the common day and the vernacular. Incidental characters are beautifully drawn and only got to show the care and effort of mapping this novel out.
The only disservice Pears does in some ways is to the introduction. The first narrator is ‘gentleman of Venice’ Marco de Cola. His is the driest of characters, bogging the eyes with his mannerisms and weighty ways. The brilliance of Cola’s portrayal is only revealed towards the end of the book.
Will you be beguiled by the passionate but arrogant narrator, James Prescott? Dr Wallis’ section is analytical, but is his thirst for revenge so disinterested? Or does Wood, our historian, like Pears, see the past in a more rounded fashion? Several real-life historical figures make cameos – there’s a useful Who’s Who included for anyone (like me) who is not au fait with the period.
Rational thought vs. theological is used perfectly to expose flaws in characters and their actions. In the background, there are wonderful depictions of an England in flux, rumour and gossip filling the void left by the death of Oliver Cromwell. Pears moves effortlessly and without discrimination between the natural, spiritual and often supernatural counteracted by the country’s yearning for science.
The book has the feel of a modern murder trial by jury with almost everyone on trial for their morals and position if not the law. What is the difference between a mistake, a fabrication and withholding information? But the novel and the times demanded justice. There’s been a murder, someone must hang. Yet as one of our narrators explains: “And without the conviction of certainty, total and absolute, how can we ever hang anyone with an easy conscience?”
This is a book that demands memory for what has been said to whom, when and why and encourages you to question motives, both through gut feeling and reason.
There is, of course, a final twist, and of course, it’s almost impossible to see it coming and is fittingly sublime. An Instance of the Fingerpost is a brooding, intense work of ingenuity and grand imagination.