On An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
This novel, described as a historical mystery, was first published in 1998. It was recommended to me by a friend, perhaps because she knows I write mysteries and love historical fiction. Although many people shy away from long books – this one is 725 pages – I usually enjoy them. I’m a fast reader and love to lose myself in a good book.
An Instance of the Fingerpost is the tale of a mysterious servant girl named Sarah Blundy who is accused of murdering a priest for whom she works. The author places the story in mid-17th century England, using real historical figures as his characters, such as the philosopher John Locke and the early chemist Robert Boyle. The book is in four parts, each told from the perspective of one of the main characters and does a good job of demonstrating how events can be interpreting completely differently when observed through different sets of eyes.
While the story held my interest, primarily because of the highly intellectual and erudite voice of the author, I found the outcome predictable and the plot convoluted. This is a book that is too long. But its length is problematic because the frequent digressions mid-scene remove us from the action and, more importantly, the story. The author uses the characters to demonstrate how much research he has done and, while impressive, this technique ruins the narrative flow.
The subplot of the beginning of medical experimentation and practice was fascinating and, I believe, accurate. The historical interconnections between the characters could have been better explained. The author throws in so many subplots, such as the character Sarah Blundy becoming a prophetess in the end, that detract from and confuse the main sub-plot, namely the secret adherence to Catholicism (even the king, George II, is a secret Papist) in a fundamentalist Protestant England.
I was most interested and involved in the few parts that dealt with the social structure, lifestyles, relationships and actions in the book. Least interested in the author’s showing off of his education and confused by the flashbacks to unexplained historical events that supposedly were the catalysts for what happened in the story. Of particular note, the only sympathetic and likeable character was the only purely fictitious one – Sarah Blundy. The true historical figures were depicted as pompous and pretentious.