I’ll admit right at the beginning of this review that I think this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. And I’m deeply envious of anyone who hasn’t yet discovered it. You have an enormous treat in store. I first read this epic novel in one long sitting from cover to cover in my early twenties and I’ve returned to it many times over the years, discovering something new on every fresh reading.
Exquisitely written and intricately plotted and weighing in at a lengthy 1200 pages, Palliser’s ambitious first novel takes the form of a Dickensian mystery set in early nineteenth century England. But Palliser adds contemporary touches, such as an unreliable narrator and an ambiguous ending. His storytelling is complex, mysterious and full of magic and his extensive research into the Victorian era he depicts renders it vivid and alive. The Quincunx is brimming with everything you’d expect to find in Victorian London: mansions and graveyards, a nightmarish insane asylum and a cruel boys school. Beggars, prostitutes and villains appear alongside a suffocatingly rigid class system.
The intriguing ‘quincunx’ of the title is a five-part heraldic design arranged in a square with a figure in the middle that appears at crucial points within the text: the number five recurs throughout the novel, which is itself divided into five parts; one for each of the families whose world the narrator is pulled into. The narrator, a young man named John Huffam, inherits a document and strives to piece together his family history and regain his birthright. Is he or isn’t he the lost heir to a great estate? Only by figuring out a will and its peculiar codicil will Huffam find out who he really is. The book revolves around complex patterns and puzzles which both the narrator and reader must solve.
This novel is not a quick or even an easy read. But it’s worth it. Set two days aside, turn off your phone and your computer and immerse yourself in Victorian England. If all novels were this good, I would never leave the house. Quintuple the length of an ordinary novel, in my view it is also five times better than most. Magical and unforgettable, its characters and their story will never leave you. Why Charles Palliser isn’t better known is a mystery to me.
The Quincunx is published by Penguin, 1248 pages.