Charles Palliser – The Quincunx

If you are a fan of the works of Charles Dickens you will find the right novel in The Quincunx (1989) by Charles Palliser. Although I have read only one novel of Charles Dickens I quickly felt the same atmosphere, style and themes from Dickens in The Quincunx, which takes place in the same time and environment as Dickens wrote his novels, although in his case he wrote contemporary novels. Either way it is a remarkable feat to do so more than 100 years later. In my case there is however a downside. I am no Dickens fan. I don’t like his style much, although my stance is more neutral than negative. I don’t rule out the possibility that I will try another of his novels.

While The Quincunx breathes in the same way as Dickens novels, there are a number of major differences. I will name the three most notable ones. The first is the tone of the story. Dickens’ stories contained a character going through bad and good times, experiencing different sides of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian society in England. There are also moments of light comedy and you know the main character is going forward. In The Quincunx the story sees very few good, or rather reasonable, times. There is very little cheerful about the story, it is actually quite depressing. As Palliser like Dickens wrote a large novel, the road is long. I can stand some negativity in a novel, but if it goes on for too long, it gets harder to keep going.

The second main difference is the detail of the setting. Dickens kept the details commonplace, mainly touching on familiar grounds the reader would be easier able to relate to. The Quincunx shows an impressive amount of research of the period and times, introducing sides and details of the society I hadn’t been aware of. He brings it in a natural way and I could only think it to be true. The story also includes extensive descriptions and discussions of the economical, financial and judicial (obviously all related) systems of the times. This all makes the novel more complicated and impressive.

The first two differences already make The Quincunx a harder reader than the average Dickens novel. The third difference takes the story to a different level. The plot is of a grand complexity that drives the reader forward and keeping him attentive. A number of mysteries form the core of the plot which drive the story and the main character. It is here that Palliser provides the reader with a greater challenge. The main character has to figure out the mysteries on his own based on often contradicting tales from characters involved in the plot and who don’t know the whole picture themselves.

It doesn’t hurt to disclose these things in my review. I started reading without being aware of it, while it would have made me pay more attention to all the revelations. It was only at a later stage in the book that realized the intention of the author and by then I didn’t remember enough to draw my own conclusions.

An opinion on this book is hard for me. As I don’t really like Dickens the style was not much too my taste. The depressing overall story made it hard for me to keep focus while the complex mysteries, a thing I love, drove me on. Because of my weakened focus I was not able to keep my attention all the time, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I perhaps could have. I will let the review reader judge for himself.

Last of all I do would like to address some of my views on the plot. These might be spoiler-ish, so I put the warning here. It might be interesting for those who have already read it to read my view. It is not that I have that much to say. After I read the novel and the author’s afterword I looked up some commentary on the web. During the reading I noted some inconsistencies in the explanations. These were partially caused by the main character ignoring certain details and drawing his own conclusions, causing his own research to follow a different path. It was quite clear I was dealing with a untrustworthy narrator who also didn’t see the whole picture. This was even more obvious as the author, as he admitted in his afterword, had left out certain details. There was no single conclusion to the mysteries and different interpretations were possible. A challenge to the reader and it also addressed the notion that a story should not provide all the answers. Being able to discuss it adds a different dimension. My opinion thus is that there is no single answer. Each reader can decide on his preferred answer and be satisfied with that.

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