Why I loved ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’

Basically, because An Instance of the Fingerpost is a great read. It has a really well crafted murder mystery, a strong use of historical setting, and some excellent characters. 

Book cover from Wikimedia

Image from: Wikimedia commons

The story’s built around four subsequent narrative accounts, by different characters, of the same set of events. With each telling and retelling your understanding gets richer, and you see multiple layers interwoven. Although the novel’s set in Restoration England, the exploration of different narrative perspectives on the same events (and the bias shown by different observers) feels quite modern, or post-modern. But at the centre of these differing accounts is a murder mystery (or, depending on how you look at it, two of them). The story’s well told – an intricate web of plots around a single event. As someone who doesn’t read murder mysteries regularly, I found it reasonably easy to follow, but still complex enough that I enjoyed the extra understanding I gained with different perspectives. 

The novel is set in a rich period of England’s history. Charles II is on the throne, and there’s a world of scientific discovery opening up, as new ideas about science and thought tie into a religious conflict that’s riven the country in a bloody civil war. The story uses the context well, and genuinely touches on some of the issues that are at the heart of conflict – allegiance to a king vs. a set of ideas, the interference of and antagonism towards multiple European powers. Of course, it feels, in some ways, very much like a modern novel. Occasionally there are jokes clearly intended for a modern audience (a character commenting on Christopher Wren’s deplorable taste), and some of the themes underlying the novel are very much modern ones. But for all that it’s an excellent piece of historical fiction – the setting is relevant, and real, but adds to rather than overpowering the plot. 

One of the things that I like most about the novel is the characters. There’s the richness in seeing different perspectives on the four narrators/protagonists through the contrast in different accounts. One of my favourite things though is the way the four narratives centre around another character, Sarah Blundy, who gradually becomes more and more central to the plot. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot further, but she’s a remarkable young woman, and even through the short-sighted views of the characters she interacts with, presents a compelling personality. 

I read this book on a chance recommendation, and loved it – I’m already looking up other pieces by Ian Pears.


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