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on 18 August 2014
Charles Palliser has formidable skills as a creator of Victorian pastiche and he uses them brilliantly here to fashion a tale of deceit, sexual shennanigans, inheritance issues and rank snobbery in mid-Victorian England. It's all wildly implausible but the twists and turns keep you on your toes and it makes for a riveting read. Basically the book is a clever page turner, good for filling a few hours - as long as you don't expect more than that it's worth reading.
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on 27 July 2015
Atmospheric and uncomfortable, not particularly pleasant characters, but still intriguing and made me want to keep on reading. If you like damaged characters and psychologically dark places of the soul, and of course a gothic feel - this is a good book to read, especially on a winters evening
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 February 2014
This book is a rare treat; one where the atmosphere is almost palpable within the first few pages. There's a real sense of menace and claustrophobia as the protagonist makes his way home on a dank, dark night. The cloistered confines are tangible as he enters a decrepit and dark house inhabited by a recently widowed mother, sister and maid. A family mystery builds layer by layer with revelations and dark hints about the reasons for the family's current state of penury and exclusion from polite society.

This is the first book I've read by Charles Palliser and I really enjoyed the narrative style; the linear plot moves forward by journal entries recounting significant events and thoughts. Small town introspection and suspicion are caught to perfection as we hear snippets of conversation and speculate about what's going on and why. There's a very strong sense of Victorian period with their grubby double standards and repressions running throughout as an undercurrents. The writing is elegant and the characters individual and convincing. There were shades of Mrs Gaskell at times, particularly in some of the attitudes and behaviours of the females. A number of satisfying mysteries and enough pace to keep me engrossed, so all in all a very satisfying read. I'm keen to read other books by this author after this!
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on 19 November 2013
Rustication is Charles Palliser's latest novel (published November, 2013). His first novel, The Quincunx, was published in 1989 and it was written in the style of Charles Dickens as a literary exercise, Palliser being at the time a lecturer in literature and creative writing. Quincunx is a masterpiece.

His latest novel, while not the masterpiece that Quincunx was, is still an interesting book and an enjoyable read. Its format is that of a journal written by a seventeen year old boy, Richard Shenstone, who has been rusticated by Cambridge University, i.e. "sent down", or more literally, "sent to the country", or in more modern terms, suspended from college as a punishment. The Journal spans the days from his arrival in his mother's house on 12th December 1863 to the culmination of events in the story on the 13th January 1864.

This story is a mystery and I will go into no more detail about the plot but I will comment on Palliser's skill at misdirection and obfuscation. Even in the final pages of the novel I was not sure how it was going to end.

Throughout the book the reader is fed the views and thoughts of the author of the journal and his journal entries purportedly record his interactions and conversations with other people in the district and within his family. As a reader I was constantly asking myself if I was dealing with an unreliable narrator, was the reportage accurate, was the journal an elaborate red herring, etc...

The book holds the attention but the pace is a little slow for the first one hundred pages but it picks up speed for the final chapters. This is the second Palliser novel I have read but I will certainly be reading his others.

This is a book I would love to discuss with someone who has read it but I do not want to give away too many details in this review as that would spoil the experience.
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on 3 March 2014
Having read both 'the Quincux' and 'the Unburied' twice already (and thinking of reading' the Unburied' for a third time) it gives me no pleasure at all to write a negative review about 'Rustication'. I was so pleased to see that Charles Palliser had written another novel and I trusted it to be as brilliant as the other two had been. I bought it straight away and started reading the moment it arrived. Unfortunately 'Rustication' is in another league entirely and not the first league either. What irked me the most was the great number of utterly unpleasant characters. From Richard to his sister, his mum and all the village gossips we only read about selfishness, corruption,addiction, greed, cruelty, malicious meddling... The Shenstone household is a cross to bear for the reader indeed if we consider the all pervading hatred and bickering existing between siblings and their mother. The constant squabbling and repetitive conversations bored me to death and it was with a sigh of utter relief that I finally read the last word.
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on 16 May 2016
One day I shall read ‘The Quincunx’, Charles Palliser’s much lauded, neo Victorian debut novel; but it’s such a very big book that I know that I have to save it until I can give it the attention that I am sure it deserves. I loved the novel that followed that one. ‘The Unburied’ wasn’t quite so long, and it was the most wonderful pastiche of the Victorian novel; a complex mystery, that came to light and was paid out to a conclusion when, in 1919, records that had lain in the Thurchester Records Office were unsealed.

Then I saw ‘Rustication’, another neo Victorian novel, not nearly as long as that one that came before, also drawn from documents held by the Thurchester Records Office. It’s a much simpler affair: this one young man’s account of a dark time in his life, recorded in his diary.

In December 1863, on a wild and dark night, seventeen year-old Richard Shenstone, was travelling to a new home, a dilapidated and apparently haunted house in the Kentish marshlands. His family fallen terrible since he had left his old home for Cambridge, since his clergyman father’s sudden death; and he had been sent down – rusticated – for smoking opium and being involved, in a way he was disinclined to explain, in the suicide of a similarly intoxicated friend. His mother was not pleased to see him; and she would not explain why he had not been called home for his father’s funeral, or why she had lost so much and been brought so much lower than she should have. All she wanted was for him to leave. His sister, caring only for her own position, wanted the same.

He didn’t want to stay but he had nowhere else to go, and he wasn’t prepared to go until he had answers to his many questions about his family’s circumstances. His mother and his sister maintained a cold silence; the only warmth in his new home came from Betsy, the new, young maidservant, who sometimes allowed him to make late-night visits to her garret.

It is not long after his arrival, that anonymous letters begin to circulate among his neighbours. The letter are obscene, they are threating, and it seems that they always contain at least a grain of truth. And there are attacks on animals, and other strange happenings, carried out in the dark of the night. Shenstone is regarded with suspicion and so he sets out to find the culprit. He considers Miss Bittlestone, a poor relation of the local rectory family. He considers the enigmatic Mrs Paytress, who has only recently settled in the district, and whose history is unclear. And he considers his sister, Euphemia, who he comes to believe is involved with the bastard son of the local earl. But can he find the answers he needs before the net closes on him?

The plot is wonderfully complex; there are twists and turns, there are secrets and lies, and there are many questions of authenticity and reliability to consider. The atmosphere and the evocation of the period is pitch perfect, and the detail is so very, very rich.

But I found a great deal wrong with this book.

The story of the anonymous letters and the animal attacks is reminiscent of ‘Arthur and George’ by Julian Barnes. I know that story was inspired by real history, and that this book might have been inspired by the same history, but I didn’t want to read it again. Was the author not aware, or did he not care? I also have to say that there was too much in this book that was familiar from other neo Victorian novels. It might be that I have read too many of them now, but I am inclined to think that Charles Palliser was once ahead of his contemporaries, but that he hasn’t moved forward, and that they have caught up with him now.

And then there was the diarist. His voice rang true, but I found it difficult to care for this self-obsessed, sexually obsessed young man, and his account felt so one-dimensional. There was a fine story of a troubled family at the heart of this novel, and it would have felt so much richer if only more documents had been archived with the account that I read. The details of the diarist’s sexual fantasies were gratuitous. The animal attacks were not gratuitously described, but I really didn’t think that they were necessary at all. I also have to question that diary itself. I didn’t believe that the young man at the centre of the story would have written in his diary as he did. Of course he could be unreliable, the diary could be a fabrication; it’s an interesting possibility but I can’t quite believe it as that either.

But I really don’t want to go on thinking about this book. I hate having to write so negatively, but when I pick up a book that I expect to love and find much to hate I have to. Charles Palliser still writes and plots brilliantly; but I have to question his choice of material and his attention to this book as a whole.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 December 2015
The Victorian 'sensation' novels of the 1860s, particularly by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, may have shocked and thrilled contemporary readers but there was much that even they could barely allude to, writing within the strict conventions of the times. Charles Palliser, who rivalled the great Collins with his magnificent novel 'The Quincunx', has written a neo-sensational novel for modern readers in which he's taken the lid off the conventions of the Victorian world to show the dark stews bubbling beneath.

It is more than a period whodunit: we have suicide, murder, under-age sex, pederasty, thwarted homosexual desire, poison pen letters full of crude sexual abuse and threats, a family in a deadly war against itself that could lead to the hangman's noose, and for good measure animal mutilation. Alongside these we have the more usual ingredients of such novels: social disgrace, vicious gossip, class tensions, a fine family fallen into disgrace, young women vying with each other for the hand of a wealthy suitor, hidden affairs - Palliser, knowing the genre inside out, has packed them all in. It's 'Cranford' for the modern generation. He's woven them into a story that keeps you gripped and guessing to the end.

He chose to tell his murder mystery through the diary of a seventeen year old student, sent down from Cambridge under a cloud of suspicion, who has pretensions to write, is both naive and sometimes acute in his observations and analysis of the puzzling events unfolding around him. Palliser gives us no other point of view (unlike Collins, for instance, who is famous for his multiple points of view), and he makes us wonder, by the planting of many perhaps deliberately too obvious clues, whether Richard is an unreliable narrator too. Richard, for instance, takes drugs and is 'out of it' some nights, roaming the countryside having visions, unable to recall what he was doing: could he have been mutilating the animals himself, or murdering the man who insulted his sister? I shan't say if that turns out to be the solution; but the ending is perhaps less spectacular and plausible than I would have liked.

Quincunx imitated the 3-volume length of a Collins or Braddon novel, spinning out the story with virtuoso prose and fiendishly complicated plotting. 'Rustication' is brief by comparison, condensed, written in short paragraphs and uncomplicated sentences, ie in the modern middlebrow style. It could have quite easily been spun out to the length of 'Quincunx' which is very long indeed. I rather regret that it wasn't for the novel teems with Dickensian characters and colourful settings and relationships governed by class and spite and gossip and mystery, all of which could have been satisfyingly fleshed out - there's a wealth of rich material here that Palliser suppresses. Despite that, this is the kind of book you can happily curl up with for hours at a time.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 January 2015
This is a book that has drawn a variety of reviews from the wildly enthusiastic to the entirely negative. Perhaps this is not surprising since the novel falls into no obvious category. There is something of the gothic: the location, the stories that circulate about past events, apparently abnormal, supernatural activity, but while these factors contribute to the general atmosphere, they remain somewhat removed from the development of the action. At the same time it is scarcely a typical “whodunit”, much as questions of this nature are of central importance.

Many readers will have arrived at this novel from the earlier and lengthier “The Quincunx”, which seems to have excited many and no doubt led to their expecting more of the same here. I must admit that I’m unfamiliar with the earlier work; indeed this was my first acquaintance with Charles Palliser’s work, so I came to this book with no preconceptions.

I enjoyed the novel. At first I found the curiously stilted style an irritant and not altogether convincing in creating an authentic sense of period. As things progressed I found this less of an intrusion. In addition it seemed fitting to the rather pompous character of the 17 year old rusticated central character, and wit and literary allusions enriched the writing. After a moderately leisurely opening the plot accelerates and the book becomes a genuine page-turner. There seem to me to be a number of implausibilities and Richard’s sharp intelligence is conveniently absent on occasions. However, the pace of the action over the second half doesn’t allow us to dwell on these things or question issues and theories too deeply. Certainly there is no shortage of twists, turns and red herrings. I’m unsure about the ending; it was not what I expected – all to the good, but I can see why some readers may feel disappointed. To say more would risk revealing that which could spoil other’s enjoyment. At the very least it’s a good read and I’m strongly inclined to take on the challenge of “The Quincunx” and other of Palliser’s novels.
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on 30 June 2014
While not in the same league as the Quincunx, in length, depth, scope or effect, I found this novel, for all its implausibility, quietly affecting. Richard, the main character, who often seems naive to the point of stretching credulity, is a disturbed adolescent; and his mixture of inflated self importance, reckless bravado, and muddled thinking interspersed with keen insight, leading to a thoroughly confusing narrative, adroitly reflects this. The denouement, when it comes, seems entirely in keeping with his propensity for shifting allegiances, while imagining others hold him in lesser, or far greater, esteem than they do.

Most of the characters Richard encounters are loathsome. They are self serving, cruel, vindictive to a degree, managing to maintain the upper hand they were born with, or had otherwise gained for themselves, while doing down, as vigorously as possible, those who they perceive as in any way threatening. The kinder, gentler types are far fewer and less assertive; but nevertheless, they stand tall by comparison with their inwardly twisted, tormented brethren.

Four characters shine out of this book as particularly worthy, and yet all are poorly served by fate, compared to those whose only thoughts are for their own advancement. The young governess who is dismissed with no references, the established lawyer with a heart, the mother of the hidden child; and the young servant girl who lives with Richard's family.

As the author notes in his afterward, it is not known what became of Betsy; but readers might hope that someone of such slight importance to the overall story, a peripheral, if constant, and benign presence, who had suffered cruelly, but who was not blighted by this, carrying no resentment, expecting no favours, only wishing to be liked, for herself, gained recognition for the goodness of her heart and steadfastness of her soul.

This is not a book to be read for the originality of its plot or the fulfilment of its main characters. It's more of a glimpse into a small, mean world, seen through the even smaller, meaner world of a family in straightened circumstances. The descriptions of pettiness and dashed hopes, played out against an inhospitable terrain, ring resoundingly throughout. The time is midwinter, and the bleakness shows.

I'm not sure what the moral of the story is. Fathers feature prominently, disappointing their children, being disappointed in their children, having expectations for their children, abusing their children. Yet, as Betsy memorably declares, "We can't help what our dads do, none of us".
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 January 2014
Charles Palliser is about as far as you can get from those writers who churn out a book every few months: this isn't quite as good as The Quincunx or The Unburied but is another piece of superbly crafted mock-Victoriana.

Told in a series of journal entries written by 17 year old Richard who has been sent down from Cambridge, this has enormous fun with the creaking, dilapidated old mansion, dark family secrets, subversive sex, gossiping neighbours, and the quest for an inheritance with which it is concerned.

Saying the things that authentic Victorian novelists were forbidden to spell out, this is like the dark underbelly of Trollope's Barchester novels. Palliser writes with elegance and a nicely old-fashioned attention to character, voice and plot which is refreshing - hugely enjoyable.
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