The Quincunx

Charles Palliser, Author
Charles Palliser, Author Ballantine Books $25 (788p) ISBN 978-0-345-36463-0
Reviewed on: 01/01/1990
Release date: 01/01/1990
The epic length of this first novel--nearly 800 densely typeset pages--should not put off readers, for its immediacy is equal to its heft. Palliser, an English professor in Scotland, where this strange yet magnetic work was first published, has modeled his extravagantly plotted narrative on 19th-century forms--Dickens's Bleak House is its most obvious antecedent--but its graceful writing and unerring sense of timing revivifies a kind of novel once avidly read and surely now to be again in demand. The protagonist, a young man naive enough to be blind to all clues about his own hidden history (and to the fact that his very existence is troubling to all manner of evildoers) narrates a story of uncommon beauty which not only brings readers face-to-face with dozens of piquantly drawn characters at all levels of 19th-century English society but re-creates with precision the tempestuous weather and gnarly landscape that has been a motif of the English novel since Wuthering Heights . The suspension of disbelief happens easily, as the reader is led through twisted family trees and plot lines. The quincunx of the title is a heraldic figure of five parts that appears at crucial points within the text (the number five recurs throughout the novel, which itself is divided into five parts, one for each of the family galaxies whose orbits the narrator is pulled into). Quintuple the length of the ordinary novel, this extraordinary tour de force also has five times the ordinary allotment of adventure, action and aplomb. Literary Guild dual main selection. (Feb.)
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