An Instance of the Fingerpost
“We are all capable of the most monstrous evil when convinced that we are right and it was an age when the madness of conviction held all tightly in its grasp.”
At nearly 700 pages, reading An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, takes some commitment, but it is well worth the journey. Pears weaves a complex, sprawling, convoluted tale of politics, passion, betrayal, faith and scientific zeal, and, of course, murder. Set in the turbulent era of Restoration England (1660s), with its attendant political, intellectual and religious strife, it captures all the uncertainty, suspicion and speculation of the time. It is, in the end, an exploration of the very nature of perception and truth.
The plot pivots around the question of who poisoned an Oxford fellow. Four narrators, with differing degrees of reliability, each take turns relaying their account of the event and all the intricate history which surrounds it. All four accounts are completely different, but are given as full and honest disclosures, and are believed to be true by each teller, even while each is laboring under his own hidden and heart-wrenching history. The web of secrets surrounding the murder becomes more tangled with each tale. An “instance of the fingerpost”, from a quote by Francis Bacon, is that piece of truth which suddenly, fully and finally sheds light on opposing and uncertain conclusions and decisively reveals the object of the quest for understanding. With the fourth narrator, the veils of misperception and deceit lift and we have the fingerpost promised in the title.
Written with finely-wrought, eloquent language and revealing all the danger, turmoil and devotion of the human heart, this is a story that does not disappoint.