2004-04-11 · in Books · 420 words

What's worse than finishing a 1200-page novel that you've thoroughly enjoyed? Finishing a 1200-page novel that you've thoroughly enjoyed, and realising that you're going to have to read it again to make sense of the last chapter.

"The Quincunx" is set in mid-19th-century England. We follow some fifteen years of a young man's life from his perspective as he finds out about the family he was born into.

I'm a sucker for books with structural constraints, so this book appealed for a number of reasons. The book's about five families, so each gets a Part, each of which is divided into five Books, each of which is further divided into five Chapters. The structure's also related to the later parts of the plot.

The book's written appropriately in the style of a 19th-century grand novel, although (since it was written in 1989) it takes us to parts of Elizabethan society that we haven't seen before. The author (as he explains in the appendix) is a great fan of 19th-century literature, and is quite prepared to poke fun at the conventions of the genre, or borrow and expand other novelists' situations where appropriate.

The plot of the novel turns out to be an immensely complex mystery story, reminiscent of "An Instance Of The Fingerpost" in a number of ways: it's centred around the occurrences of one night about which we've got several conflicting reports, and all the evidence is presented, so it's quite possible to figure out what's going on before the characters do. More interestingly, it's possible to see things they've missed or chosen to ignore — the conclusions that John has come to by the end of the book are most likely not those that you've worked out, and he keeps irritatingly quiet on some subjects that we'd really like to hear more about.

Maps and family trees are provided within the text, and there's an index of characters at the end. Unfortunately, the index is written from the perspective of the end of the book, so it's not a good idea to use it if you're halfway through and can't remember who someone is, as I found out. (I think there are some excessively early spoilers on the family trees too, although it's possible I just missed hints along the same lines in the text.)

This is a book that's going to require a second reading at some point, preferably with a notebook handy to write down names and page numbers as I encounter them. Thoroughly recommended.