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The Quincunx, 1989
The like of The Quincunx has not been seen in this century. The author's background is that of a university lecturer in 19th and 20th century fiction who spent 12 years creating this stunning tour de force in full-blown Dickensian style and researching the authentic details of scene and speech that transport the reader into the daily reality of London in the early 1800s. Palliser is a supple and subtle master of the English language. As he has gone on to demonstrate in his subsequent work, The Sensationist (1991) with its deliberately bleak prose and then the intoxicating mix of styles in Betrayals (1994) -- both of which are utterly unlike The Quincunx and one another -- there is apparently no approach to fiction he cannot adopt. One awaits with keen interest his forthcoming novel, The Unburied, described as revolving around a mystery set in the 1880s.
The Quincunx is one of those rich, immersive novels that bear repeated rereading. The present comments are being written after a third adventure through its many pages, which was thoroughly as enjoyable as the first. Indeed, to be already acquainted with the entangled plot relieves the reader of anxious attention to what is happening and allows not only a more careful search for the read-between-the-lines clues that eventually enlighten the protagonist, but also an appreciation of the "design of the whole," as two of the narrators choose to call it, which consists of a plan appropriately based on five: 5 Parts, each of 5 Books containing 5 Chapters. Nevertheless, we shall refrain from describing the plot in too much detail so as not to lessen a first reader's pleasurable suspense.
In essence, this is a typical bildungsroman in which we follow the chief character from his early childhood into adolescence, from a comfortable life in the peaceful English countryside to a harrowing descent into poverty and disaster in London. The boy, John, is forced to learn to live by his wits and his courage, for everything else fails him: almost every friend proves false, the adults who cross his path are treacherous and scheming, and his natural protectress, his mother Mary, is sweetly credulous and easily influenced, unprepared for adversity, sadly wanting in judgment, and weak of character. No matter how strong his grasp on reality grows, decisions are taken out of his youthful hands by those in authority over him; John is constantly frustrated and rendered helpless by his minority and by penury. Even at the close of the story, when he has firmly taken his life into his own hands and finally sees his way clear into the future, he is still under legal age and as yet unequipped to enter any profession. But by then we have high hopes for John.
The intricate plot hinges on John's identity and on the disputed ownership of a large estate, which is already the subject of an interminable Chancery suit when the novel opens. Five separate branches of the original Huffam family, interrelated by marriages down the last two or three generations, may each have a claim on the estate, depending on which purloined document can be recovered and laid before the court: a codicil entailing the estate on the direct line of Huffam descendents, although actual possession has since been transferred to the Mompessons, one of the vying families, or else a later will bequeathing the estate outright with different heirs in remainder in respect to the codicil. It is in the interest of some contendents that one or another of the documents be suppressed, and in the interest of others that either the will or the codicil be produced. As a further complication, there surfaces a bitterly ambitious illegitimate Huffam line: the hidden sixth spoiling the quincunx of five. For the Mompessons, menaced by the danger of the codicil coming to light, the safety of the entailed heir could become of paramount importance, since his existence keeps them in possession, but for others that heir is an impediment to be ruthlessly removed.
And, of course, young John is destined to become the last entailed Huffam heir, as he discovers early on, and will be required to sort out and identify his numerous enemies. But John's original personal preoccupation is with his own identity: what is his true surname? who is his father? why does his mother refuse to discuss the circumstances of her marriage? when will he be old enough to receive her often promised, always evaded, revelations?
Once the chain of machinations that dislodge Mary and John from their secret provincial refuge has begun, the progress of events is inexorable and readers lazily accustomed never to see dire consequences actually attain their worst extremity will be appalled at the realism and depth of the débâcle. Before he is done, John will have to scratch for a living in the streets and sewers of London and foil repeated attempts on his life. He will meet beggars, street-artists, grave-robbers, thugs, and thieves. He will see the inside of a mad-house and a sadistic school for the "final disposal" of unwanted children. But as he loses the innocence of boyhood, confronted by the merciless facts of a penniless existence, he will acquire the unwelcome answers to all his questions and a very precise understanding of who he truly is. The reader, however, may only participate fully in that knowledge by overlooking no fact that John unearths in the course of his quest.
There are three narrative voices in The Quincunx, the main one being John's vivid first-person recounting of his story, in the course of which the other two narrators are duly encountered. They, in accordance with the conflicting principles they belligerently lay down and constantly quarrel over, imaginatively recreate and comment all scenes at which John could not be present, thereby allowing us to eavesdrop on Lord and Lady Mompesson in their elegant drawing-room or old Silas Clothier hatching his plots in a sordid counting-house down by the river, as well as sundry clandestine meetings conducted by the shady lawyer Mr Sancious. Palliser, in other words, while proffering a sleight-of-hand lip-service to the figure of the moralizing omniscient narrator so often favoured in the writing of the period, has actually eclipsed himself in the modern way, allowing The Quincunx to breathe on its own and eloquently speak for itself.
© Wordreign, July 1999
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