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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A long way from Dickens, 7 Nov. 2009
This review is from: The Quincunx: The Inheritance of John Huffam (Paperback)
This book is often referred to as a 'Victorian novel' or even as 'a homage to Dickens', but it is not particularly convincing even as a pastiche, and certainly never reaches the heights of Dickens, or even of Wilkie Collins best works. One reviewer has suggested that it is better than Dickens because it does not rely so heavily on over-stretched coincidence. Well it's true that the author goes to some lengths to supply explanations for the coincidences, but that does not mean that they are necessarily any more convincing. What the novel lacks, which Dickens supplies in abundance, is true characterisation and insight, and something truly worthwhile to say about the human condition. That is why Dickens is great and Palliser emerges as just another author. The Quincunx is on one level an entertaining and well researched romp through Victorian England, though one populated by depressingly one dimensional characters and an irritating and frustrating protagonist who does not know what is good for him (not to mention his mother who starts out as pretty and sweet but quickly proves to be merely vacuous, so much so that her fall from grace, which is actually sketched out in the most simplistic and shallow terms, evokes very little sympathy). It is often hard to suppress the desire to bang heads together, harder still to really care about any of the many, many characters who people the novel. The other key ingredient missing, if this book really has to be compared with Dickens, is humour. Dickens used this brilliantly, knowing as he did that it is as central to life as tragedy. It actually strengthens the pathos because it gives us chance to see life in the round - to see the close relationship between the serious and the ridiculous - whereas in Palliser's book it is almost entirely absent, just a relentless round of avarice, cruelty and betrayal (a comparison of the scenes at Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, and the Quigg Academy in The Quincunx points this up very well). I give The Quincunx three stars for the research and the moderately gripping story, but I suspect that many another reader, like me, will feel cheated by the perfunctory and deeply ambiguous ending, and more annoyed still by Palliser's rather smug notes at the end, where he seems to be at pains to point out that the reader has probably not picked up the 'hidden text' of the book. Don't necessarily believe those who say that taking notes as you go along enables you to do this. It's equally likely to point up inconsistencies which make almost any interpretation of the protagonist's true origins insupportable. By the end though - for all that you may have enjoyed the recreation of early 19th Century London - the chances are that you will not particularly care.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 26 Nov 2010, 12:07:44 GMT
mad_mushroom says:
Excellent review. Couldn't have put it better myself (though I marked it down more heavily).

Posted on 11 May 2012, 10:27:39 BST
piscator says:
I entirely agree. To be fair to Charles Palliser (if "fair" is the right word here), I'd want to add that I don't think it was part of his object that readers should like or engage with any of the characters. If it is a postmodern attempt at the formal recreation of a Dickensian-type novel without any of the moral or emotional judgements that we normally associate with Dickens, he succeeds pretty well. We are to see the plot, the pattern of the novel, only as it is written, not as representing an independent reality that could be described differently by another character. The message is that there is no "world of the novel" for us to have feelings about, there is only the writing on the page. The only problem is, what is the point of it? "The Quincunx" is a very clever exercise, but readers want an interior world and it is entirely human to expect to care about it. At the end of the book I felt as if I had spent time to no purpose, and worse, I felt that I was being somehow mocked for minding about it.

Posted on 17 Aug 2014, 08:39:08 BST
Whereas the women in Dickens are never vacuous? I do wonder if Dickens continues to enjoy his iconic status because nobody actually reads him outside of school.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Aug 2014, 14:35:03 BST
Odd comment that. I didn't read any Dickens at school and only came to him much later in life. A lot of people I know who love Dickens have had exactly the same experience. Clearly your implication is that if adults DID read Dickens his 'greatness' would be debunked. Unfortunately, given that a very considerable body of adult readers still DO engage with Dickens, and that other writers of stature like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Hardy, Poe, G K Chesterton, Orwell, and, more recently, John Irving, have admired him or been influenced by him, your proposition doesn't stand much scrutiny. Oh, and yes, there are vacuous women in Dickens' novels. His friend Wilkie Collins has much stronger female characters. Admiring what he achieved in his writing does not mean that one has to be blindly uncritical. The point here is that irrespective of the weaknesses, Dickens offers a huge amount that rewards the reader. Quite where the reward is in The Quincunx is much harder to say.

Posted on 12 Sep 2016, 10:29:05 BST
Huck Flynn says:
i found this book totally absorbing. I'm a big Dickens' fan - he's perhaps my favourite author, and I get the references but I would never have thought to review this book as a comparison to Dickens - it's clearly a different type of work - a mystery thriller, and not a contemporary crusading analysis of Victorian society (how could it be). So I think judging it on its own merits is fairer. Dickens did create some one dimensional characters too and had two endings for Great Expectations. We shouldn't be blind to his faults either (great though he was)
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