Jun 13

The Quincunx

Posted by Soliloquy in Braille

“The Quincunx” is an epic Dickensian-like mystery novel set in 19th century England, and concerns the varying fortunes of young John Huffam and his mother. A thrilling complex plot is made more intriguing by the unreliable narrator of the book – how much can we believe of what he says? First published in 1989, “The Quincunx” was a surprise bestseller and began a trend for pastiche Victorian novels. It remains one of the best…. More >>

The Quincunx

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  • With a huge, colourful cast of characters, The Quincunx by British author Charles Palliser is, like Edward Rutherfurd’s London, the kind of book that comes along all too rarely–a book wherein one loses all sense of the present as one is transported back through history to another time and place. This is a novel that is at once a family saga, an adventure, and a mystery with plenty of twists and surprises. With it, Palliser has proven himself to be a master storyteller, and it has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book as much as this. In fact, I’m not sure it didn’t surpass London–another historical of epic proportions that I highly recommend–as my favourite novel by a contemporary author. (I ought to mention I’ve yet to read Eco’s The Name of the Rose).

    At 781 pages, however, this historical masterpiece set in early nineteenth-century England is not for the faint of heart. At stake is a legacy–title to a huge estate of land. Though the story literally takes place during the span of several years, it is a tale about an extended family (and their relationships with one another) whose beginnings take us back five generations. Bit by bit the family history is revealed–and it is a history rife with intrigue, double dealings, scandal, and even murder. What makes the revelation of the family history so exciting and so important is its relevance to the novel’s present, for not only is the identity of our young protagonist and narrator, Johnnie Mellamphy, at issue, but his very survival hangs delicately in the balance.

    Those for whom this engrossing, unputdownable novel will be a special treat are those who enjoy solving word or logic puzzles (I am a puzzle buff myself). To be enjoyed to its fullest, this is a book that benefits from active participation on the part of the reader; indeed, it is (in my opinion) to a certain extent mandatory. As the story unfolds, Palliser provides the reader with both outright information and clues (some of which are quite subtle) as to who’s who, what really happened, and why. Palliser enjoys teasing us, and some of his subtle clues result in our drawing the wrong (though perfectly plausible) conclusions. At other times (particularly near the end), he refuses to spell things out for us, leaving us to rifle back to previous parts for a confirmation (and perhaps even an explanation) of what happened. For those with ready access to such, Palliser would even have one delving into reference books in order to find the dates when certain events occurred (like Johnnie’s birth, for example), for they are all revealed by reference to other events which occurred at or around the same time.

    I might just mention: I found it very helpful to create a family tree (in pencil!) as the geneology unfolded–be it from village gossip, facts, or my own suppositions. I also set out who would inherit if certain conditions were met and identified these individuals on the tree. Very early on, I began to dog-ear important passages that I thought I may wish to refer back to (to make the rifling back process easier!). Most importantly, I found this to be the sort of book that benefits from reflection, for it is by logically following an idea through in one’s mind that one can reach a number of accurate conclusions ahead of the protagonist. Don’t think that this will ruin the surprises for you, for it won’t. Palliser, I have no doubt, expects no less of us.

    In conclusion, I highly, HIGHLY recommend this to anyone looking for an intelligent, captivating, masterfully written novel. I simply cannot praise it highly enough. It is not, however, for the individual who expects to be spoon-fed by an author. In other words, if you are looking for something one can read while putting the brain in neutral, you’d best look elsewhere. With this novel, what you get out of it is directly proportionate to what you put into it!

  • I first read Charles Palliser’s Quincunx more than ten years ago and I vividly remember being so wrapped up in the world he created that I would spend every spare moment of the day reading, perhaps only a couple of paragraphs at a time. As it was such a big book, it was my constant companion for a couple of months.

    The obvious comparison of this book is to the classic Dickens masterpieces, and the similarities abound; a young boy at the center of a story that spans the world of Victorian London, shady characters, hard times ….many of the classic Dickens elements are there. While the readers of 1800’s had a comtemporary understanding of the world of which Dickens wrote, we in the 21st century sometimes have a difficult time grasping all the subtleties and nuances in his texts. Palliser, being a modern scholar of the period, takes the time to help us through some of the aspects of Victorian England with which we may not be all that familiar. For example, right at the beginning of the book before the story even begins, there is a breakdown of Victorian English currency. I found this very helpful, as I really didn’t know the difference between a ha-penny and a sixpence, or a pound and a quid. Also included in this book are some wonderful maps of London as it was at the time of the narrative. I’ve spent many pleasant hours exploring these maps; not only finding various locations within this book, but ferreting out locations that have been mentioned in several novels of the period by authors like Conan Doyle and Anne Perry.

    After more than a decade and countless other books, many of the fine points and details of this story have escaped me, yet the feeling of the book, the sense of realism and authenticity have continued to linger. More than anything, the vividly described locations and palpable ambiance of the city have remained. Few books have stood out in my mind for such a long period as has The Quincunx. Don’t be put off by the length of the book; if you are a fan of wonderful adventure and mystery, and of Victorian era England, you will not be disappointed with this wonderfully evocative novel.

  • A young boy, a will and a mystery set in Regency England.

    I read this book originally in the early 1990’s and have just finished reading it for the second time.

    If I had placed a review immediately after the first reading I think that I would have shared other reviewers’ relative disappointment at the ending.

    However after this second visit, I now think that a tidier ending with all loose ends accounted for, would not have done justice to the complexities of the rest of the book.

    Looking at the story now, it seems to me to be an entirely satisfactory and deeply considered work of art, one that the master of this sort of novel, Wilkie Collins would surely have approved of.

    Very few writers have Pallisers skill to immerse the reader so quickly in the world he describes. Once you have dipped your toe in this book (say 40 pages or so), then the rest of the 1100 pages or so swim by without your noticing its extraordinary length.

    Indeed I believe that you will become so engrossed that it will be with increasing irritation that you find yourself having to put the book aside for another night.

    If you have any feeling at all for the historical novel, or enthralling mysteries, then be good to yourself and start reading now!

  • Just how do you account for the outrageous audacity of a first-time novelist who seems to have set himself two awesome tasks:

    1) To create a plot so intricate in design, so mind-boggling in its complexity, so inventive in its incidents, so breathtaking in its ramifications, that it would have been impossible if it hadn’t actually come to have been written.

    2)To recreate 19th century England in all its Dickensian sprawl and largeness, to imagine that bustling cacophony in all its glitter, dazzle, filth, sordidness and cruelty, and to do so with great aplomp so that the act of reading becomes a truly immersive experiance.

    That Palliser even attempted this story at all is incredible. That he has managed to pull it off is miraculous.

    The story follows a boy and his mother as they run for their lives trying to evade people who are out to get an important will. It follows the fortunes of five branches of the Huffam family, all out to inherit the vast Huffam estate. The boy and his mother are hounded at every corner of London by cut-throat criminals, shady lawyers, cunning relatives and the like. They are reduced to begging in the streets.

    As the storyline and the subplots swirl into dazzling arabesques of seeming impossibility, the reader gasps at the continual surprises, the jolting twists and the disorienting turns. Palliser is unrelenting in the miseries he hurls at his protagonists, and unremitting in the shocks he delivers to the reader.The novel is truly impossible to put down. I first read it in 1994 and re-read it recently. It is just as amazing the second time round. The story enfolds your waking hours and you free-fall vertiginously into a dreamworld that is entire and complete.

  • Having just finished reading The Meaning of Night – A Confession, I kept trying to remember what this book reminded me of. Then it dawned on me, I had read Charles Palliser’s Quincunx a number of years ago but had failed to review it. Maybe that’s because it’s such a prodigious piece of literature, that it stops one cold as to where to begin a review.

    After several years and numerous other books, many of the finer points and details of Quincunx have escaped me, yet the feeling of the book, the sense of realism and authenticity have been reawakened by Cox’s novel, The Meaning Of Night. Few books have remained with me as has The Quincunx and it was wonderful to be reminded of it again by Cox’s latest work. Quincunx is a spellbinding story of murder, deceit, love, and revenge in Victorian England.

    There are many who won’t like Quincunx because it takes a lot out of the reader, one must pay attention and carefully because there are twists, turns, characters, and incidences that you must keep straight in order to fully appreciate the mastermind behind the novel. But, so amazing to me, is the fact that Palliser never loses the thread and even if at times, I felt a bit hoodwinked, the author does an extraordinary job of tying all of the loose ends together by the end of the book.

    In fact, just reminiscing about this novel makes me want to go and read it again. I’m certain it will not disappoint. One can go again and again to this wellspring of work and never come away unfed.

    It is a bibliophilic, murderous confection straight out of Dicken’s period of foggy and dirty old England. It is remarkably entertaining and the ending will not disappoint.

    If you enjoy English murder and mayhem, you’ll like this book. I’m sorry it took me so long to come back and review it. It’s not that there aren’t enough reviews of the book, its just that when you’re emotionally moved by a novel, you should not let it get away without decrying its amazing ability to entertain.

    This book contains a deft plot, many subplots, clever mysteries, and meaty characters and an evocative ending. Though not an easy read, it is truly a wonderful adventure though it traipses through some extraordinarily dark escapades. Kudos to Palliser.



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