An Instance of the Fingerpost
by Iain Pears
“In my small way, I preserved and catalogued, and dipped into the vast ocean of learning that awaited, knowing all the time that the life of one man was insufficient for even the smallest part of the wonders that lay within. It is cruel that we are granted the desire to know, but denied the time to do so properly. We all die frustrated; it is the greatest lesson we have to learn.” ― Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
England in the mid 1660s, 1663 to be exact, was a world filled with religious suspicions, class differences, restored monarchy, war and deception, treason and prison, poisoning and trials, public hangings, science versus religion, truth and lies. With the age of scientific experimentation came also a plethora of autopsies, human and animal, transfusions. Just then the Royal Society was flexing its muscles -- Oxford and all of England was at the height of Restoration. Anyone knowing anything of this period knows the civil unrest and the intrigues of the times. With Cromwell dead and the monarchy restored, England is in an uneasy period and even the hallowed cloisters of Oxford provide no refuge.
Iain Pears' entertaining and long tale benefits from his work as art historian, consultant and journalist. Using his experience he creates a compelling and intelligently written mystery, comprising a search for real truth, precise and accurate in every word. Against this backdrop of English Restoration, Pears has woven a wonderful story of darkness and shadows. A must for anyone who likes good literature mixed with history and an exciting plot. Told from multiple points of view and incorporating many actual historical figures, the book examines the difficulty of ascertaining the truth while offering a carefully reconstructed picture of life in the seventeenth century.
The story is divided into four sections. In the first, Venetian scholar and traveler Marco da Cola offers his version of the events surrounding the murder of Oxford Fellow Robert Grove. Opinionated, influential Dr. Robert Grove is poisoned with arsenic in his New College lodgings. A missing signet ring leads his colleagues to his former servant (and rumored strumpet). The child of religious radicals, Sarah falls under suspicion when it is learned that Grove has recently fired her after rumors of an affair between them began circulating in Oxford. She is swiftly brought to trial, confesses and is promptly hanged--and dissected by enthusiastic physician Richard Lower. But the crime, evidently so simple in its events, is presented through the distorting lenses of four narrators whose obsessions place it in dramatically different contexts. Much of the evidence against Sarah is provided by Jack Prestcott, a young man determined to clear his father’s name of treason charges and also the narrator of the book’s second section. The third narrator, Dr. John Wallis, mathematician and divine, believes Sarah to be instrumental in anti-government plots, while Anthony Wood, an historian and the book’s fourth narrator, loves her.
In the brilliantly illuminated world in which medical experiments, religious and political debates between Roundheads and Royalists, and the founding of the Royal Society bring debates about the nature of science, history, religion, and authority into a focus whose sharpness has a special urgency for our own time, each of these narrators has his own slashingly conflicting claims to make. But it's not until the final narrator, burrowing historian Anthony Wood, weighs in to judge among the sharply competing visions of the earlier narrators that Pears produces his most memorable surprises, or unveils his deepest mysteries. Self-interest, political expediency, and the social climate of the times all play a part in Sarah’s fate, with Pears’ startling conclusion placing the story’s final assessment in the hands of his readers. I would highly recommend it for those who enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.
An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Riverhead Books, 2000 (1988).