Confession: I like long books. VERY long books. Aside from War and Peace, this one might be the longest I’ve read at a mahoosive 500k words. But my God is it worth it.
The Quincunx has a plot of immense complexity, with all the Dickensian themes: a disputed inheritance lumbering its way through the court of chancery; several questionable births; forbidden love; secret diaries; shocking murders. All the Dickensian characters are here too: boorish aristocrats, underworld villains, sinister lawyers, loyal mudlarks, gruesome bodysnatchers. However, thankfully the book is not a mere copy of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins, but a subversion: the hero’s saintly mother turns into a prostitute and drug-addict, every ‘good’ character has his dark side, and even the hero can be petulant, judgemental and self-obsessed.
Like ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’, this is another book that plays around with structure, and had me marvelling at the ingenuity. Five interwoven families dominate the plot and each family has a quincunx, an arrangement of five five-petalled flowers, as their symbol. A recurring theme throughout the plot, Palliser also uses the quincunx as the basis of his book’s structure. The five parts of the book each correspond to one of the families, and each part is made up of five books, each in turn made up of five chapters. One chapter in five, representing the central petal of the flowers, is in third person, while the others are in first-person, following the hero’s path. I could go into much more detail, but it is worth reading Palliser’s LONG essay at the end of the book to discover just how he managed this incredible feat of structure.
Finally, the twists. They keep coming, and the final sentence of the book turns much of the novel on its head, with competing interpretations as to what it means. I think in general ‘the twist’ in contemporary crime fiction is often overdone, and often a disappointment. However, when done well, as here, a good twist can leave you breathless. This book taught me so much about the intricacies of plot, and the skill of weaving the main plot with relevant sub-plots. I love it, and just writing this has made me want to read it again.