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Friday, January 29, 2010

An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears

An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears

The book is four distinct memoirs-seemingly written in about 1680-that recalls an event during 1663, the murder of Dr. Grove in Oxford, England. Four major characters give their views on what happened. You know the game of starting a whisper at one end of a line of people and then it's passed down the line until the last person speaks outloud what they hear. This game shows how people can get something twisted when information is passed through others. This book is somewhat like that. The same event happens (the murder) and yet it gets filtered by the 4 characters' experiences, biases and their circumstances.

Marco da Cola, a visiting Italian physician. Jack Prestcott, the son of a traitor who fled the country to avoid execution. Dr. John Wallis, a mathematician and cryptographer with a predilection for conspiracy theories. And, Anthony Wood, a mild-mannered Oxford antiquarian. "Instance of the fingerpost"' quote comes from the philosopher Bacon, who, while asserting that all evidence is ultimately fallible, allows for "one instance of a fingerpost that points in one direction only, and allows of no other possibility." A fingerpost is one of those tall road markers with narrow, arrow-like signs at the top pointing the way.

Set in 17th century England these events happened in Oxford shortly after the Restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660. Dr. Grove is murdered by arsenic and clues point to Sarah Blundy, a servant girl who used to work for Dr. Grove. Sarah is found guilty and is hanged in public. She is the daughter of Ned and Ann Blundy. Ned Blundy was a part of the rebellion and was eventually captured and put to death. Ann Blundy had evidently been a firecracker when she was younger and they had raised Sarah to be much more independent and free than women were allowed to be back then. Ann and Sarah barely survive and were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Being beautiful attracted men's attention and yet she wasn't interested in their attentions. Due to her low station, she knew they just wanted a play thing. In fact, during the entire book, she was never treated with respect by any men but was abused by them all, one way or another. She was raped by Jack Prescott who thought it was his right because he was in a superior position. Even Anthony Wood, who thought he was in love with her and carried on an affair with her, still felt that she was just a servant and could be nothing else. He hired her as a housekeeper so he could be near her. But he believed the worst when Prescott told him that she was prostituting herself with others and carrying on with her other employer, Dr. Grove. That really hurt her, especially after the rape (which he knew nothing of). Their relationship is a strange one. He treats her better than all the other men but still in a weird way.

Cola comes into town and meets up with Richard Lower and they begin to discuss and experiment with autopsies and blood transfusions. Ann Blundy has broken her leg and is dying. Sarah Blundy goes to ask for a physician who refuses to come but Cola overhears her. He offers to examine her mother. He says there is no hope for her unless they allow him to do an experimental procedure of blood transfusion. Sarah agrees and Lower helps him transfer blood from Sarah to Anne. They had no idea about blood compatibility. The mother and daughter had the same blood type and Anne seemed to get better. But, later, Cola did another blood transfusion using someone else who wasn't the same blood type and Anne died.

Jack Prescott's father was accused of being a traitor and had to run to the continent leaving his wife and son behind. Prescott was desperate to find evidence that his father wasn't a traitor and to have his good name and fortunes returned. Dr. Wallis, the cryptographer, becomes convinced that Cola is in England to assassinate the king for Spain. But he finally changed his mind and thought Cola was there to assassinate Lord Clarendon. He sees conspiracies every where.

This book is a long book. And it's pretty complex. I had a hard time remembering all the characters and I kept taking notes in the margins. I got tired of it halfway through and stopped for awhile and that didn't help me remember. It's one of those books that you have to keep slogging through...all the way through...or you lose the train of thought. There is definitely a Messianic complex which makes it quite blasphemous but you will have to find that out yourself. I'm ready to move on.

Don't get me wrong, it was well written and the memoir premise is a clever one. The stories are believable. But it was a little dense and I was ready for it to be over.

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