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[311] An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

” Two men, it seems, can see the same event, yet both remember it falsely. How, he went on, will we ever reach certainty on anything, even when of good will? . . . But how can I tell which assertion to believe, and which to reject? ” [Part 4:1]

Nothing is ever as it seems in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In using four different (unreliable) narrators, Iain Pears weaves webs of deception and misapprehension, using omission and outright lies to confuse the truth. Each of the four accounts—a Venetian physician, a traitorous soldier’s son, a mathematician, and a historian—has distinct motive and reason that render the self-contained (and self-conscious) account less objective and misleading.

In 1663, England is wrecked with intrigue and civil strife. The king is nearly toppled from his throne. Thousands of dissenters are locked in the jail. Rumors of war across the North Sea are boiling. It’s a time when everyone is a fool, a liar, a murderer, a cheat, or a traitor. All men are subjects to be twisted to serve their ends. These secretive and frightening events form the theater set for the death of Dr. Robert Grove, an Oxford don found dead in his rooms at New College. It is discovered that arsenic added to a bottle of brandy has killed the prelate. Following the murder emerges a scandal in which Dr. Grove is alleged to fornicate with his house servant, Sarah Blundy, who has admitted to the crime.

A few people continued to fight against Cromwell’s tyranny, but only because they thought it right to do so, not because there was any anticipation of success. The number of people sick of despotism increased year by year, but they were too cowed to act without a lead. [Part 2:4]

As the novel plunges into labyrinth of events and findings recalled by each narrator, it is clear that the first three narratives present only a simulacrum of verity. As much as the first account is true, the Venetian physician is not what he appears to be. That he attends to Sarah’s sick mother serves as a disguise that will gain access to the house for some secret papers concerning the state. Jack Prestcott is on a mission to revenge on the death of his father, James Prestcott, a former member of Sealed Knot who has been betrayed. Convinced that John Thurloe (Cromwell’s secretary of state) has hidden the identity of the real traitor at the expense of his father’s fall, Jack pursues Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician who is expertise in decoding cipher, whom he believes is in possession of the coded documents used to incriminate Sir James Prestcott. But Wallis himself lives a life that calls for discretion and he attributes mendacious motives to the Venetian purely out of personal reason.

But these are just mere contour of the truth, which nobody can even fathom.

Of course, the package was that bundle of documents, which Blundy had shown to Sir James Prestcott, and which Thurloe held to be so dangerous he searched for years to recover it. [Part 4:3]

An Instance of the Fingerpost is an intellectual mystery that revolves around the contention between the Commonwealth and the Royalists in 17th century England. Thrown in the plot are grand events of history, the birth of modern science, machinations of politics, interference of religions, and human tragedies. Twists and reversals are the result of countless deeds and decisions, secretly taken and only half known, let alone understood, that slowly accumulate over the years to produce the death of an innocent girl. The many plots and counter-plots, deception and double-dealing are reasons that the book should not be rushed, but savored.

735 pp. Pocket paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]