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An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel by…

An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel (original 1997; edition 2000)

by Iain Pears

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4,0611081,251 (3.93)1 / 228
Title:An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel
Authors:Iain Pears
Info:Riverhead Trade (2000), Paperback, 704 pages
Collections:Read, Fiction, Your library
Tags:Historical fiction

Work details

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997)

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English (101)  French (3)  Spanish (2)  German (1)  Swedish (1)  Russian (1)  All languages (109)
Showing 1-5 of 101 (next | show all)
For ages, everyone told me that ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is Iain Pears’ best novel. Partly because of this I sort of ‘saved it up’ and held off on reading it for a while. (The other factor in this decision was that this book, even in paperback, weighs about 10 pounds. It’s enough to make me want a Kindle!) But, because of this expectation-of-awesomeness (and maybe a tiny smidgin because of sore wrists?) I was a little bit disappointed. This is definitely Iain Pears’ most ambitious novel – but I didn’t like it the best.

I also wish I’d known in advance that the whole concept of the novel is that you’re going to hear the whole story, repeatedly, from different perspectives. It’s always disappointing when you think (due to the number of pages on the right) that there are many more events to come – and there aren’t. Certainly, seeing the events through a different perspective, there are further revelations… but the ‘that’s it?’ realization was a bit of a let-down.

‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ is a 17th-century British mystery-drama. I’d never heard the term ‘fingerpost,’ but it’s the British term (perhaps quite obviously) for one of those signposts that look like a hand pointing the way to a location. Here, each narrator’s tale seems to point in a somewhat different direction. (And all the narrators are probably-historically-authentic but quite-utterly-despicable people. Get ready to feel icky about spending time in their self-justifying, nasty company.) The first is Marco de Cola, an Italian dandy ostensibly in London to look after his father’s financial interests, but seemingly more interested in pursuing medical experimentation and intellectual pursuits. Second, Jack Prestcott; obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s reputation and overcoming his reputation as the son of a traitor to the realm. Third, John Wallis – a mathematician and cryptographer, and also a religious fanatic. Fourth – Anthony Wood – a socially pathetic man with somewhat-hidden intellectual abilities and an historian. None of them are reliable. Some may be intentionally deceitful. Some may be insane.

The events center around the tale of Sarah Blundy; a poverty-stricken young woman accused of murder; but encompass a host of political machinations and conspiracies, going up to the highest level. Keeping track of all the characters (most of whom are historical figures), their motivations, and the elements that agree and conflict in each of their stories is intellectually stimulating. However, I wasn’t as emotionally drawn in to many of the events as I would’ve liked to be.

However, I’d challenge any reader to fail to feel for Sarah Blundy, caught as she is in a trap not of her own making. More than most books, this vividly brings to light the unenviable situation of simply being a woman without means in this time and place.

This was a very good novel – but as I said, my (very) high expectations led me to feel a little let down by it. I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes complex mysteries and a 17th-century historical setting.
( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
A great mystery book that keeps you guessing up until the very end. Told from various characters' perspective, we are forced to ride along with their perceptual bias, and just be patient with only getting the partial story each time. Also, learn about day-to-day life in 17th century Oxford - a wonderfully detailed accounting. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Set in 1660s Oxford, this is the sort of book that draws you in. ‘Atmospheric’ is the best word to describe this novel about a woman who is (perhaps unjustly) tried and hung for the murder of a don and we see the events before and after the murder from several sources…the end was a genuine surprise. Pears captures the turmoil of a country only just out of civil war, the particulars of English society and the superstitions of the day. I read this while in Oxford, but would have been just as captivated if I’d read it at the beach. ( )
  vlcraven | Feb 16, 2015 |
I wanted to love this book, I was determined to read the whole damn thing, and I did, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz​

I read so many reviews saying wonderful, marvelous, so intricate so satisfying, but I just couldn't pay close enough attention...I tried, I really did. But zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz​

(oh, and there are several instances of descriptions of animals being tortured in experiments, and I have a particular aversion to that, which didn't help..beware if you have a similar sensitivity) ( )
  SusanListon | Nov 30, 2014 |
* Note: Lots of spoilers in this review, so tread with caution.

Iain Pears digs deep into religion and science in this compelling period mystery set in Oxford, England in 1663. An Instance of the Fingerpost is the kind of lengthy, slow burn of a book that reveals itself only to the most observant and committed of readers, but with an explosive payoff that's well worth the wait. The book is lengthy, and the time period obscure for most contemporary readers, so be ready to jump in with a strong stomach and a clear mind.

The driving force of every mystery is to figure out what really happened. In An Instance of the Fingerpost that discovery is no easy feat. A murder has been committed, and someone, Sarah Blundy, is eventually accused, convicted, and executed. Pears gives us four different narrators, each with their own account of what took place, and it's up to us to weed out the delicate thread of truth from the mishmash of half-truths, contradictions, and misdirection.

Each chapter starts off with epigraphs taken from Francis Bacon's opus, Novum Organum Scientarum. The epigraphs serve as thematic signposts to hammer home the flawed thinking at work in each account:
- Idols of the Market (Marco da Cola - His account shows how language and description can color the facts; outright deception)
- Idols of the Cavern (Jack Prescott - His story shows how personal obsession, personal demons, and self-delusion can distort the truth; complete unreliability)
- Idols of the Theater (John Wallis - His version shows how the most precise, logical and science-based reasoning can still lead to the wrong conclusion; fallacies)
- Idols of the Tribe (Anthony Wood - His testimony reveals the supposedly inviolable explanation of what really happened, but it is also a greater meditation on the shaky foundations of truth in general).

The big reveals depend critically on the sequence of those accounts, as each narrator reveals new information that purposefully illuminates or obfuscates what has been said before. In other words, the four narrators each have had access to the testimony told before them: Prescott has read Cola's account when he gives his; Wallis has read Prescott's and Cola's; and Wood has read all three. This makes it easy to compare events and catch similarities and differences, though you may have to flip back and forth between chapters to compare versions.

Structurally the book's framework seems straightforward enough. The Rashomon-style whodunit is a common enough trope in literature, especially in mysteries, as is the use of unreliable narrators. But what makes the book so much more entertaining to read is that it's set solidly in England's Restoration period, one of the more interesting period settings I've encountered. Forget Game of Thrones, people! This is the real deal when it comes to vicious power struggles, political intrigue, and social unrest. I had to brush up on my English history as I was reading this. Not a necessary thing to do but it makes for a richer reading experience to have some basic knowledge of the historical figures who show up, and the context of the times to get a sense of what's at stake (clue: a sh*t-load). As I understand it, a Civil War has just come to a close. Oliver Cromwell, the rebel and "Lord Protector" is dead, his cronies vanquished. Charles II is back on the throne and the monarchy returned to power. But Restoration England is still a dangerously divided place with bitter hatreds and prejudices everywhere. There are the Royalists and Protestants on one side, pitted against everyone from radicals and Quakers, to Anabaptists and Catholics.

It is in this political moshpit that Pears sets up the murder, and so you can expect that the cast of characters to be embroiled in the various plots, schemes, and rivalries that reflect the precariousness of those post-Restoration years. Pears uses this real-life tumult to corrosive effect, not only to set the stage and tone but also to drive the plot. By the end of the last account, we see just how far up the chain a simple case of murder in the small town of Oxford goes, the ramifications of which reach as far up as the king himself.

This book reminded me so much of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and I wouldn't be surprised if Catton got a lot of her inspiration from Pears's book. On the surface, both novels explore a specific event through the viewpoints of various witnesses. But the deeper commonality is the exploration of the mystical; Catton takes her structure from the position of the stars, and hence that book's abstract, astrological framework; Pears draws more directly from the philosophy of logic, specifically Francis Bacon, though he also touches on mysticism and religion.

In fact, there is a strong religious/spiritual fixation in Pears's book. Key characters seem to be Christian figures or symbols:
- Sarah Blundy is obviously the Messiah figure. The various conspiracies and special interests that lead to her conviction makes her the 'sacrificial lamb' and the botched execution is her 'resurrection'; she is also depicted as a healer and visionary with special powers. Even her birth is similar to the Christ birth as her relation to Ned Blundy, her father, is called into question in the Wood account.
- Wallis is the Pontius Pilate figure; he knows that Sarah is innocent and still allows her to be taken to the gallows anyway because her death ensures a sense of order and justice in his mind.
- Prescott is probably the Judas figure as he betrays both Sarah and Grove and sets up a kind of murder-execution with the lies he tells and spreads.
- Wood is … well, I'm not sure who Wood would be. Keeping with the Christian framework, Wood is probably Peter, the rock of the church, or another apostle. Wood is the only one who truly loves and venerates Sarah in the book.

What does that say about Pears's stance on religion to include these Christian tropes in a book that examines the nature of truth? I wonder...

Overall, An Instance of the Fingerpost is a richly satisfying book. It's a heavy book—and I don't mean just physically. The historical realism of the setting—the oppressive attitudes of the time (especially toward women), the squalor, disease, early experiments in medicine are rendered in visceral, gross-out detail—is placed jarringly alongside weighty explorations of the Truth. You get the full spectrum in this book, from the gutter to the celestial. When I finished it, I literally sat back and stared at the wall for a few seconds. It's a book told in layers upon layers of deception, with Pears ever so slowly peeling back those layers, until we're finally left with the truth at the end…or are we? Well, I'd like to think so. ( )
4 vote gendeg | Nov 7, 2014 |
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Iain Pearsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ambrosini, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Biličić, DamirTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Čhaturongkhawāni… Thanatwō̜nTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Engen, BodilTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gračanin, MartinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gurovoj, I.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jakovlev, BožicaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Johansen, KnutTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Khup, NālanthāTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kim, Sŏk-hŭiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lindenburg, MiekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lundborg, GunillaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mader, FriedrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Máximo, Maria AliceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Petecka-Jurek, KatarzynaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petersen, Arne HerløvTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radevic-Stojiljkovic… BranislavaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sabljak, AnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sarotte, Georges-MichelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae.

(History is the witness of the times, the light of truth, the life of memory, the mistress of life.)
             Cicero, De Oratore
A Question of Precedence

There are idols which we call Idols of the Market. For Men associate by Discourse, and a false and improper Imposition of Words strangely possesses the Understanding, for Words absolutely force the Understanding, and put all Things into Confusion.
— Francis Bacon,
Novum Organum Scientarum, Section II,
Aphorism VI
An Instance of the Fingerpost

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 that Evidence already set down.>— Francis Bacon,
Novum Organum Scientarum, Section XXXVI,
Aphorism XXI
To Ruth
First words
Marco da Cola, gentleman of Venice, respectfully presents his greetings. I wish to recount the journey which I made to England in the year 1663, the events which I witnessed and the people I met, these being, I hope, of some interest to those concerned with curiosity. Equally I intend my account to expose the lies told by those whom I once numbered, wrongly, amongst my friends.
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Book description
We are in England in the 1660s. Charles II has been restored to the throne following years of civil war and Oliver Cromwell's short-lived republic. Oxford is the intellectual seat of the country, a place of great scientific, religious, and political ferment. A fellow of New College is found dead in suspicious circumstances. A young woman is accused of his murder. We hear the story of the death from four witnesses; an Italian physician intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion; the son of an alleged Royalist traitor; a master cryptographer who has worked for both Cromwell and the king; and a renowned Oxford antiquarian. Each tells his own version of what happened. Only one reveals the extraordinary truth. (1-57322-082-5)
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0425167720, Mass Market Paperback)

An Instance of the Fingerpost is that rarest of all possible literary beasts--a mystery powered as much by ideas as by suspects, autopsies, and smoking guns. Hefty, intricately plotted, and intellectually ambitious, Fingerpost has drawn the inevitable comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and, for once, the comparison is apt.

The year is 1663, and the setting is Oxford, England, during the height of Restoration political intrigue. When Dr. Robert Grove is found dead in his Oxford room, hands clenched and face frozen in a rictus of pain, all the signs point to poison. Rashomon-like, the narrative circles around Grove's murder as four different characters give their version of events: Marco da Cola, a visiting Italian physician--or so he would like the reader to believe; Jack Prestcott, the son of a traitor who fled the country to avoid execution; Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer with a predilection for conspiracy theories; and Anthony Wood, a mild-mannered Oxford antiquarian whose tale proves to be the book's "instance of the fingerpost." (The quote comes from the philosopher Bacon, who, while asserting that all evidence is ultimately fallible, allows for "one instance of a fingerpost that points in one direction only, and allows of no other possibility.")

Like The Name of the Rose, this is one whodunit in which the principal mystery is the nature of truth itself. Along the way, Pears displays a keen eye for period details as diverse as the early days of medicine, the convoluted politics of the English Civil War, and the newfangled fashion for wigs. Yet Pears never loses sight of his characters, who manage to be both utterly authentic denizens of the 17th century and utterly authentic human beings. As a mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost is entertainment of the most intelligent sort; as a novel of ideas, it proves equally satisfying.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:02 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

When a fellow of New College in seventeenth-century Oxford is found dead and a young woman is accused of his murder, four witnesses, each with his own agenda, tell what they saw, but only one speaks the truth.

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