I’ve had An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears on my TBR list for years so I feel quite accomplished having finally read it. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. All the rumbles I had heard said historical fiction and made claims that it was like Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, a book I have read and liked.
It lived up to the historical fiction part since the crux of the story is set in 1663 Oxford. As to being like Name of the Rose, well, sort of. Like Eco’s book, Fingerpost has a mystery of sorts. It also (if I remember right) has a similar tone. I want to call it flat but that wouldn’t be right. Even maybe? But that makes it sound kind of dull. Rational and reasonable? It’s the kind of tone you get when something is recalled from a distance and the writer is carefully narrating the story so as not to let the wrong thing slip. And by writer I don’t mean Pears but the four different written narratives that comprise the book.
At the center of each story is a series of events. Doctor Grove, an Oxford don, is found dead. It is declared a murder. A girl named Sarah Blundy is accused, confesses, and is hung. Simple, right? Nope. Each of the four narrators plays a different role in the events and of course frames his story from what he knows and believes so that the story ends up like an onion with each successive section peeling back a layer until all is revealed. Or is it?
Even at the end, one is left not knowing what can and cannot be believed; wondering whose story is closer to the truth. And this is all very interesting because the book is filled with truth-seeking endeavors. The first narrator, an Italian visitor to Oxford, Marco da Cola, gentlemen, is a follower of the experimentalist philosophy. In other words, one who performs experiments in order to discover scientific truth. But it isn’t long into the second narrative that we find out that da Cola might not be telling us the whole truth in his story.
The second section is told by Jack Prestcott, a student of law at Oxford who is on a mission to clear his deceased father’s name. His father was a supporter of King Charles while Charles was in exile and Cromwell was in power. But himself died in exile as a traitor of the king. All of the Prestcott lands were confiscated or sold off to pay debts and Jack is left with almost nothing but the grudging generosity of his mother’s brother and a besmirched name. He seems an honest, if overly bull doggie sort of lad until part three of the book.
Part three is narrated by John Wallis, a professor of mathematics at Oxford and a man who has worked for both Cromwell and Charles as a codebreaker. Wallis lets us know that neither Prestcott’s nor da Cola’s stories are entirely truthful. He carefully explains where they went wrong and how it is that he knows the truth. He is calm, logical, unconcerned about his reputation or gaining any sort of advancement. All he wants is to keep the country from slipping back into civil war. How can we not believe this man? So we do only to have it all called into question by the final section.
Part four is narrated by Anthony Wood, a historian at the college. He is writing a history of Cromwell and Charles and all the surrounding events. He wants to include the voices of people who were there, both winners and losers. His historian’s mind looks at all the details and tries not to judge, only to find out the truthful facts. And so all three of the previous stories are called into question and we are asked to believe that Wood’s version of events are the true ones. But are they? By this point no one can be trusted.
Wood, however, sets himself up as the “fingerpost,” as per Francis Bacon:
When in a Search of any Nature the Understanding stands suspended, then Instances of the Fingerpost shew the true and inviolable Way in which the Question is to be decided. These Instances afford great Light, so that the Course of the Investigation will sometimes be terminated by them. Sometimes, indeed, these Instances are found amongst Evidence already set down.
And while Wood is a fingerpost in a few instances, in others we wonder what fingerposts might not also be in the evidence of the three preceding narratives. Things don’t seem to be so black and white, and fingerposts are lost in a swirling fog of lies, secrets and silences.
The book is good reading, but slow so be prepared to spend some time if you choose to read it. I also think this is a book that, while the story is good, not everyone will get along with it. It is one of those books where you either take to it or you don’t. So if you read it and get fifty pages in and still aren’t feeling it then don’t keep going because it is not going to get any better for you. But if you get to page fifty and think that it’s pretty good, then you’ll end up enjoying the whole thing.