The Quincunx novel
Charles Dickens author
PALLISER, Charles (b. 1947)
Many readers know Charles Palliser for only one book. But what a book.
Occasionally a writer—like John Irving, say—is said to be the Charles Dickens of our era, creating fictional worlds with large casts of eccentric characters resolving great moral and emotional issues with intricate plots and coincidences. But Palliser's The Quincunx recreates the entire Victorian world of Dickens, both in its detail and in its style, while still being a page-turner for a modern readership.
It's surprising to discover Charles Palliser was born an American, near Boston, since his works are so quintessentially British. But he was educated mainly abroad after the age of ten, residing in England for the most part. He attended Oxford and taught at university in Scotland, England and then back in the U.S., before setting in London. His first published works were articles on English and American literature. A couple of plays were produced for stage and radio in the early 1980s.
The Quincunx was his first novel, having taken a dozen years to research, write and publish. It was first published in Scotland in 1989 but soon became a worldwide phenomenon, quite deservedly. The novel has an unimaginably complex plot that nonetheless catches hold of the reader, involves him in the main character's story, takes him through more highs and lows than a dozen roller coasters, and then, unbelievably—but believably, if you know what I mean—comes together beautifully. Like Dickens or Wilkie Collins on speed or whatever the latest drug for such comparisons is today.
Palliser's next work of fiction, The Sensationalist (1991), was a modernist novella about a sexually obsessed computer worker. Reviews were mixed, admiring Palliser's plotting but decrying his over-intellectualization and lack of emotion.
The Betrayals (1995) was a better-received mystery novel written in a variety of genre-mixing styles.
The Unburied (1999), to the relief of many critics, returned to the Victorian era with several murder mysteries actually, taking place in three periods of British history and being addressed from the perspective of 1881. The interweaving of the stories and the multitude of characters make it all frustratingly complicated and, unfortunately, the brilliant but cold plotting fails to engage the reader's sympathies with any of the people involved, a mistake Wilkie Collins or Dickens never made.
But it still intrigues, making Palliser a writer one can always count on for something interesting and different every time out.
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