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Book Review: 'An Instance of the Fingerpost' by Iain Pears

Of the four viewpoint characters mathematician John Wallis, historian Anthony Wood were actual people. A third, Jack Prescott, is in part based on the life of Richard Willis.


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A dramatis personae at the end of the book lists the more important recurring historic characters. Between Anthony Wood, gentleman historian and Sarah Blundy, serving girl. Despite generally good intentions on both their parts, it ends in [[spoiler: The House of Stuart: The narrative takes place during the early years of Charles II's reign. The title, as well as short epigraphs for each part of the narration, is taken from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum Scientarum.

According to Wood's interpretation of the events, Sarah Blundy is a reincarnation of Jesus. Sarah Blundy Mistaken for Spies: Jack Prescott's narration relates much of his attempts to clear his father, who is assumed to have betrayed his fellow members of the Sealed Knot to Oliver Cromwell.

Review: An Instance of the Fingerpost

My Girl Is Not a Slut: All of the narrators have pretty unenlightened attitudes towards Sarah because they think she is promiscuous Perfect Poison: The physicians performing the autopsy find residues fairly easy, too. The guilty plea earns a 'merciful' death by hanging, before being burned in contrast to just the latter.


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Sarah thinks that Marco intends this when treating her mother and commenting that he will take his pay later he doesn't, since he's a celibate priest, and so when Sarah strips in front of him, he ends up thinking of her as an evil slut. She had good reason to think this way, since the last guy who did her a favor and told her to worry about payment later really did expect sex in return.

Life is short. Read fast.

John Thurloe Unreliable Narrator: All four of them, though for different reasons. All four narrators are very much examples of their age, and hence see things very differently than would modern Europeans. In particular, Sarah Blundy comes across to them as a villanous harlot, despite in many ways being perhaps the most benevolent and honest character in the story. The cynical but unhinged paranoia of the seventeenth-century police state looms over the narrative to chilling effect.

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The first narrator is an intelligent, curious and interesting fellow, anticipating the forthcoming enlightenment. The following two narrators are, however, unsympathetic to the point of being insufferable.


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  6. Sometimes you follow these unpleasant men to uncover their motivations and find the light they shed on the plot. At other times, however, you follow them only because the writing is excellent, and from whatever morbid amusement can be gleaned from their misfortune, stupidity and blinkered inanity. This to a degree more, I fear, than Pears intended. Wood comes across as the most sympathetic of them, but also the most problematic. He is given the task of wrapping up the narrative and, if he can be believed, gives information that neatly solves the many threads of the plot.

    A review of a novel that barely mentions its central plot, or many of its important features or themes, is perhaps a little unorthodox — but this is precisely in keeping with the novel itself. All I can say is that it is a very clever, confident, well-written book which I would recommend heartily.

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