Just finished Charles Palliser’s amazing The Quincunx* and feeling a mixture of exhaustion, elation and sadness.
It’s been a while since I was so totally absorbed, transported and obsessed by a book. So much so that the characters were starting to infect my dreams!
I’ve always been a fan of the neo Victorian novel and loved Michael Cox’s The Meaning of the Night, and Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.
I found out about Palliser through the Guardian’s list of Top 10 Neo-Victorian novels and thought: “Great! A big fat juicy neo-Victorian novel is exactly the perfect read for an Australian summer spent inside air conditioning?”.
The story begins with John Mellamphy, a young boy, living with his mother in modest conditions in the remote English country side. John is not sure who his father is, but knows that his mother is hiding a secret document that holds the key to his identity and perhaps fortune.
This sets the scene for John’s amazing journey as he tries to recover his inheritance and seek justice and revenge.
The intricate plot involves five families who are all at some stage of another trying to seek an inheritance of the one of the largest estates in England.
John’s traumatic adventures include all the different tropes of Dickens & Wilkie Collins novels.
As Michael Malone notes in his review:
For Mr. Palliser appears to have set out not merely to write a Dickens novel but to write all Dickens novels: we meet the strange young girl in a great crumbling estate, the floating prison hulks and mysterious legacy of ''Great Expectations''; the debtors' prison and suppressed codicil of ''Little Dorrit''; the heir's convoluted name change and presumed death by drowning of ''Our Mutual Friend''; the loathsome father-son business team and the vast real-estate development scam of ''Martin Chuzzlewit''; the stormy night, carriage chase and foiled elopement of ''The Pickwick Papers''; the pauper child of secret parentage kidnapped by a gang of thieves of ''Oliver Twist.'' It’s traumatic and unremittingly grim at times as almost every disaster possible falling upon John and his mother.
But the journey is so truly worth it.
Palliser creates a wonderfully detailed and textured picture of nineteenth century London. You can almost breath the fetid air of the dark and dirty streets of London. So much so that you don't want to leave at the end.
I was a bit worried about finishing the book as I read some reviews that had found the ending a bit of let down. A big worry when you've been making your way through such a big novel! But I was actually quite satisfied with the ending and provided you with some real resolutions.
Once you start this book, be prepared to be utterly absorbed and transported to another world.
* The title ‘Quincunx’ refers to a geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center (via Wikipedia)