Charles Palliser’s bold Gothic thriller, Rustication, his first novel since 1999’s The Unburied, is a story of secrets set in an isolated corner of Victorian England.
What was the inspiration for the book, and the title?
I started with ideas of exile, remoteness, and failure. My narrator, Richard, is suspended from Cambridge and his family is “banished”—because of both financial pressure and scandal—from [their home] where they have had considerable status. The three of them have been forced to start life again in a lonely and hostile place. I always try to find a single word for a title that packs in as many relevant meanings as possible, and about halfway through writing the novel it occurred to me that the word “rustication” brought all those ideas together beautifully. In the sense of “suspension from an educational establishment,” the word is pretty obscure, but clearly everyone will recognize that the countryside is involved.
The plot involves conspiracy to commit murder, sexual threats, family secrets, and even a possible ghost. Did the complexity of the story present formal challenges?
I wanted to use the form of a diary. Keeping to Richard’s point of view was a serious challenge, since he is unaware of much of what is unfolding around him. The other “voice” in the novel is that of the author of the anonymous letters [that the characters begin receiving, which are threatening in nature]. I wanted the reader to be curious about that individual’s identity. Could it be Richard? Could the same person who writes his diary in such a laconic, mocking tone also concoct letters filled with sexual perversity and cruelty? It was very complicated getting it right. It was as if I was working in several dimensions to make a narrative for the reader that would be intriguing without becoming merely baffling.
Richard is hugely flawed, yet ultimately moving.
I wanted readers to be unsure of his motives and his psychology. Is he lying in his journal, or is he simply failing to understand the actions and motives of other people? My idea from very early on was to bring everything to a climax in which Richard becomes capable of almost any action. But the moment of his greatest mental instability becomes the point from which recovery is possible. I think every first-person narrator in a novel should be compromised. I prefer that word to “unreliable.”
How long did it take you to write this novel?
This novel took seven or eight years to write. I had not expected that. To make it interesting and worth doing, writing a novel has to be a leap into the unknown. I have to be unsure if I can write it, otherwise I won’t want to. For me, it would be pointless to write a novel that I knew I could complete within a specific length of time. I could do that only by repeating something I had done before, and I’ve never wanted to do that.