Well, I said 2014 would be a year of Big Books and you really don’t get much bigger than this. Last year, when I bought my copy of The Luminaries, a colleague said to me “you know, if you really want to read a proper faux Victorian novel, you should check out The Quincunx”. As I pondered whether something could be proper and faux at the same time, I wandered into my nearest bookshop and picked up a copy. It is a HUGE book in every sense of the word. It’s a trade cloth sized paperback, and it weighs in at 1191 pages of fairly small type. The story is both sprawling and intimate (focussing on the possible inheritance of one person, but said inheritance is tied into decades of family history and encompasses five different families). As reviews stated at the time, Palliser pretty much out-Dickens Dickens.
Quincunx is not, as you might expect, a Chaucerian bit of slang for vagina, but the five point design you see on the face of dice. And fives are what this novel is all about. It’s divided into five sections, each section into five books and each book into five chapters. We have a first person narrator, John Mellamphy, and we have an omniscient narrator who pops up at the beginning of each section to drip feed us information. Master Mellamphy begins to believe that he is actually John Huffam and the rightful heir to the Huffam estate. His mother possesses a codicil to a will that would prove as much, but there are other families who would stop at nothing to ensure the codicil never sees the light of day.
As John sets out to discover the truth about his heritage, his journey takes him far and wide throughout England and encounters pretty much every level of society. For quite a while, his mother is with him and her naïveté might just drive you out of your mind. She’s so staggeringly that you feel for John when he yells at her for being so trusting of complete strangers and the like. When John leaves her behind, the story really does kick up a gear. Misery upon misery is piled upon our possible Huffam until you can’t quite believe he isn’t crushed by the sheer weight of them.
Just when you think that you can’t take anymore gloriously detailed glumness, the events of the novel become so intense and exciting that if you’ve been enjoying it up to that point, then strap in, because you won’t be putting the novel down until you get to the end. Honestly, the last 300 pages will have your pulse racing and I pretty much couldn’t read it fast enough. The ending deviates from the traditional norm Palliser is emulating, in that it is most definitely ambiguous. I can’t decide whether to be annoyed by this or not. I really wanted a definitive happy ending for John Huffam as he really suffers for his art over the course of 1150 pages and at least a decade (Palliser never gives you his age or a true idea of the span of the novel). But we don’t get a definitive unhappy ending either. There are definitely more elements of misery than joy in the final chapters, but there’s enough of a glimmer that I want to believe it wasn’t all for nought. Whatever the conclusion I draw, I can say this for sure. Reading this book was most definitely NOT for nought. An absolutely staggering piece of fiction. For those of you who love classic novels and bemoan the fact they don’t make them like they used to, well, THEY DO.