Book Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost, published in 1998, is a rather large work of historical fiction – 704 pages long! As I had this read aloud to me by my husband whenever we had some free time – which was not often – it took over a year to get through it – but it was totally worth it.

This book is a historical mystery set in Oxford in the early 1660s and is broken into 4 parts and narrated by four men with very different views and whose stories are intricately woven with subplots, political machinations, lust, and at times, violence. Some of the narrators and characters in the novel are historical figures such as Anthony Wood, John Locke, Thomas Ken, John Thurloe, and Robert Boyle, among others.

As the stories often contradicted each other, the reader faces one persistent question: “Whose story can be trusted?” I found both the first and last narratives the most compelling, but the second narrator was unlikeable and the third narrator was so tedious we nearly stopped reading the book altogether!

What ties all four stories together is the life of an enigmatic young servant woman, Sarah Blundy, whose presence touches each narrator in sometimes intense ways. A murder is central to the plot – whodunnit? – and the twists involved kept us guessing until the last pages.

Every loose end was carefully tied up at the end, leaving no questions as to what happened to each character…well, except for one.

Pears – clearly – did an extraordinary amount of research to write this mammoth novel. Indeed, at times I was struck and very much impressed by his understanding of Restoration religion and politics – even the fringe groups of the time. This was a very scholarly, cerebral novel, the kind which I enjoy but that will not be to everyone’s liking because it had the tendency, especially in the third narrative, to be a tad long-winded.

I found myself quite moved in the final part of the novel, which we felt rather Biblical at times. It was, as I wrote earlier, one of the strongest of the narratives and had so much yearning, so much heart – that it was by far the most human and touching part of the whole novel.

TSCL rating: 4/5

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