This is the most readable thousand page novel I’ve read. Not the best, but the quickest and the most indulgent: The Quincunx is seriously gripping with a serious plot. I freely admit that I am more interested in atmosphere than action so The Quincunx was a refreshing change… because it has the most complicated mystery plot of any book I’ve ever read before and I’ve never found a family tree of characters quite so crucial.
Yes, every review mentions Dickens and Wilkie Collins but how do you talk about a Victorian novel with a vast array of characters and a damn good mystery without claiming the author was influenced by either? I loved that Palliser had clearly wanted to include a huge spectrum of Victorian society into this book – aristocrats, merchants, traders, sewer divers (yes, really), servants in great houses, laundry women and an unusual band of misfits living in a half built neighbourhood. The parts of the book that really grabbed me were surprisingly mundane – as poverty hits John and his mother have to wake up each morning worrying about how to get food for the day and shelter for night. I think a really good writer can make the simplest of details interesting and this section of the story reminded me of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
I loved it, even though John as a child was exasperating and his mother is just so stupid, right up until the end. Don’t worry – I’m remembering not to put any hint of spoilers in. The ending is not unlike the ending of Great Expectations or The French Lieutenant’s Woman in that it can be read as ambiguous or just plain unsatisfying. To be honest, the bigger problem I had towards the end of the book is that there were just too many twists and turns and important details saved until the very end. Don’t get me wrong the plot is hard to follow at the best of times, but the last hundred or so pages threw me off completely.
In spite of this I still really enjoyed the book and was more than happy to have invested so much time in reading it. In fact, if I didn’t have so many other books to read not to mention a pressing Clarissa schedule, I probably would have started it again from the beginning. There is so much in it that I haven’t even mentioned the book’s mathematical layout, the lost story within a story or the mystery itself! Not a classic per say, but definitely an interesting read in comparison to some well known and loved authors.