Thoughts: An Instance of the Fingerpost

Iain Pears’ novel has been sitting on my tbr pile for quite a while, but this month I gave myself a push, motivated by Anna and Iris’ “longawaited-reads month”. Long awaited it was indeed, but I am so happy to have finally read the book.

 An Instance of the Fingerpost is a historical, scholarly (according to the blurbs) mystery set in 17th century England, mostly Oxford. Charles II is only just back on the throne, the country is still reeling from the civil war and everyone with at least a passing interest in power and politics is still scheming. The book consists of four narratives: The Venetian Marco da Cola, the student Jack Prescott, the cryptographer Dr. John Wallis and the archivist Anthony Wood. All write down their version of the events surrounding the murder of the Oxford don Grove, years after it happened, each contradicting the others’ narrative.

At the heart of the story, however, is Sarah Blundy, a young woman, who is caught up in the events and intrigues spun around her. She is from the lower classes, something of a herbalist, educated and holds progressive views on gender equality. As a result, she is alternately taken for a witch, a whore and a prophetess. The way she is treated is abysmal, but of course many of the attitudes regarding women are only articulated differently today. She was by far the most interesting character, but the prophetess thing threw me I have to admit. But then I couldn’t relate to the religious aspects at all.

What I was most excited about was the history of medicine, I always get a kick out of that. This is the time during which the Royal Society is beginning to emerge and Robert Boyle figures in this novel, too. It was fascinating to read a fictional account about how blood transfusion could have been first attempted and it is during the 17th century that methods are beginning to change from the humours approach and the set of the stars etc, to more “modern” approaches. In fact, the characters hold very different opinions on what is legitimate medicinal treatment and constantly argue in Aristotelian fashion.

 I don’t think this worked for me as a mystery, but I really enjoyed its other aspects so I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The first 100 pages were a bit hard going, but after I had oriented myself so to speak, I got really into it. I was scrambling to remember classes on English history, but in the end a bit of googling helped me picture the time and the connections between the historical characters better. Perhaps the blurbs are a bit misleading, this is not a page-turner, but this is one well-researched historical novel, nt some crap put together after glancing at a Wikipedia page and if you’re interested in 17th century politics, gender relations, religion and the history of medicine, I doubt that the amount of pages without instant gratification will bother you. Oh and it’s extremely well-written, too!

Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link.

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts: An Instance of the Fingerpost

  1. Fantastic review, Bina! I loved the unreliable narrators part of the book – this was my first ‘unreliable narrator’ book and so I have fond memories of it. The History of Medicine part of the book was quite interesting too. Iain Pears has captured a world in transition as you have beautifully described. I liked very much what you said about the book being well researched rather than the author putting together stuff from Wikipedia 🙂 Glad to know that you liked the book so much. Thanks for this wonderful review! After reading your review, I am getting tempted to read the book again 🙂

    1. Aw thanks, Vishy, glad you liked it. Did you post a review? Because I couldn’t find it.
      Oh I love unreliable narrators, I can recommend a few other great ones, if you’re in the mood!
      The different attitudes were really fantastic, it felt exciting to be pratically there with the characters. Haha oh yes, I loathe bad research, I mean if you get a kick out of writing about other times or cultures, do your research, it’s very rewarding and readers actually get to learn something.
      Haha, it would be interesting to read it again, slowler this time and spend more time appreciating his prose.
      Have you read any of his other works? I feel tempted to search the library catalogue!

      1. Thanks Bina! It will be wonderful to know about more novels featuring unreliable narrators! Please do tell me about them.

        I read ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ before I started blogging and so I haven’t reviewed it. Whenever I read it again, I hope to post a review 🙂

        I haven’t read any other books by Iain Pears. I have a book of his called ‘The Titian Committee’ which is a mystery novel about an art theft. I haven’t read it yet though. I want to read more of his works. Hope you enjoy reading others books of his.

        1. Glad you liked the unreliable narrator list…I noticed that I really have to work at reading more international lit with unreliable narrators.
          Stood before another Pears book at the library today, but I want to savour his books, they all sound great.

  2. I’ve had this on my shelf for ages too. I loved Stone’s Fall, but had issues with The Portrait. This one is so long that I keep putting it off. Your review has encouraged me to give it a try. I didn’t realise it was set in Oxford (where I was born) and I do love all that medical history. I’ll try to read it soon.

    1. I haven’t read his other works, yet, but Stone’s Fall sounds fantastic!
      I found it a bit intimidating, but I’m so glad I finally read it. I think you have to read at least the first 100 pages, because they might be a bit slow.
      That’s wondeful, hope you’ll enjoy 17th century Oxford then! I’ve been only once but it was beautiful, if crowded 🙂

  3. Interesting, I have just finished a book set just after the English Civil War. Not a time period I have read anything about before but I am now really up for reading more about it. Shame this book wasn’t as thrilling as it made out but the historical setting sounds really good.

    1. I think if one doesn’t expect a page-turner, or a quick thriller, then it’s a wonderful reading experience. That’s a time period I don’t read a lot about either (I seem to stick with the 19th c 😉 ), which one did you read?

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