An Instance of the Fingerpost
By Iain Pears

Riverhead Books, 1998

Reviewed by J. Ashley (7/98)

My first thought on picking up this book was "do I really want to (have time to) read a 685-page historical right now?"

My first thought after Chapter 1 was, "Yes, I do!"

Iain Pears writes An Instance of the Fingerpost in a flowing, compelling first-person narrative that pulls you back to the Oxford, England, of 1662. Charles II has not long since returned, the memory of Cromwell is fresh, and old enmities between monarchists and Cromwellians fester. The Royal Society has just been founded, and the book vividly portrays the scientific community of Oxford at the beginning of the Enlightenment.

The novel is written in four parts--each a different account of the murder of Dr. Grove, a college fellow, and the trial and execution of a suspect. The first account is by a young Venetian physician visiting Oxford; the second, by a young man whose father had been suspected of betraying supporters of the monarchy; the third, by a disgruntled fellow of New College; the fourth, by an eccentric young historian.

The murder of Dr. Grove--the discovery of the body, the suspicion of murder, the investigation--is standard mystery fare, but what starts as a simple puzzle turns out to be only one thread in a snarl of intrigue, betrayal, treason, and lies. And the reader can't always trust the narrators, who each firmly believe in the truth as he sees it.

Though the book is long, the accounts are colorful and don't let you go. I found myself wanting to read on and on, even when I was put off by some of the gruesome accounts of scientific experiments and by the depiction of harsh discrimination faced by women of the time (a woman is hanged for killing her rapist-- since she was pregnant, it could not have been rape because a woman can not conceive without taking pleasure in the act; in another incident, all women are banished from a room during a scientific experiment, for fear their "irrational natures" would skew the results.)

This was a good, satisfying read, though it got a bit long before the end. Still, it's worth the effort. If you liked Eco's Name of the Rose, you'll probably like this one too. Highly recommended.

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