An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Writers of historical fiction tend to use few standard structural patterns. The most common one is when all the events happen in the same time frame as in Wilbur Smith’s Warlock or Jason Goodwin’s The Snake Stone or Javier Sierra’s The Secret Supper.  Another popular structure is when people in the present time frame are chasing a treasure or reacting to events that happened centuries ago. In such styles, two timelines alternate with clues set up in one narrative affecting the events like in the novels of Daniel Silva or Clive Cussler. More adventurous writers handle three timelines like in the Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro.  Then once in awhile you read books, where the writer juggles much more than three timelines effortlessly, weaving a tale or presenting an idea that is captivating, like in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

An Instance of the Fingerpost plays with the structure in a different way: the tale of a 17th century murder at Oxford is narrated by four people who were present and each of those narrators are unreliable and have their own agenda. The story is set during the period following the events of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies . Charles II was keeping the throne warm and the sugarcane plantations of Barbados were generating wealth. Oxford was a town filled with scientists, philosophers and priests and it is to this town that the first narrator — a Venetian named Marco da Cola — who is in England to tend to his father’s business affairs, arrives.

There he mingles with intellectuals like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Thomas Ken and Richard Lower and mingles in the local taverns and their homes. He is also a gentle soul, helping the poor Sarah Blundy whose mother has been injured and no one would help. He claims to have invented blood transfusion and uses it to help Sarah Blundy’s mother. Then one day, a fellow at the college is found murdered, with traces of arsenic in whiskey. Sarah Blundy, who was seen around  is accused and hanged.

The second narrative is written by Jack Prestcott, the son of a Royalist traitor. He is on a mission to clear his father’s name and runs around to find evidence for it.  He believes his father was framed by someone powerful, while everyone else believes otherwise. The father’s treason was created using  secret messages which were encrypted using some books as the key and he wants to find the messages and the key.  Prestcott was in jail and had escaped in the night of the murder by trying up Dr. John Wallis who had come to visit him. Dr. John Wallis, who had worked as a crypographer for both Oliver Cromwell and the King is the narrator of the third part. He has been tasked by the minister with keeping the country safe, irrespective of the ruler and everywhere he looks, he sees conspiracies. He could have helped Jack, if he found the books that were used as the key for encryption. The final piece comes from Anthony Wood, an antiquarian, who is acquainted with all the characters and has an entirely different perspective on the events as well as the actors.

The 700 page book quite successfully recreates the 17th century Oxford with all the issues of that era such as the conflicts of the class system, the battle between the King’s men and Cromwell’s acolytes and the fights between philosophers and scientists. The book is not for those who want something quick to read like Daniel Silva; the story is quite complex and deals with a varied number of issues. Each sentence is well crafted and there is depth to the conversation between the characters with details of medicine, curing ailments, surgery, various philosophical and  religious schools, questions of loyalty to men and God.

A main worry of 17th century Europe and 21st century Delaware was witches. You see witches being burned few centuries earlier when Christopher Columbus was on his way to Hispaniola; you see similar theme in 17th century Germany. Oxford, the seat of learning for England, was no different and you see Sarah Blundy being accused of the same because she could heal. This was also a period when Papists were feared as well as  ridiculed and since Marco da Cola was one, this issue plays out well.

As each narrator tells his story, the previous narrator’s story is either refuted or altered or something that was downplayed, gets noticed. Thus Marco da Cola, who looked like a curious tourist in the first story, gets a completely new coat of paint in the last one. Sarah Blundy, who looked like a poor girl in Cola’s narrative is found to be a bigger player in the events that happen.  As the story moves forward, there are surprises culminating with a climax that could not be anticipated, but was seeded all along. The murder of a seemingly irrelevant person was part of a conspiracy which affected the future of England and that makes it a satisfying read.

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