Quincunx (Review)

Labels: Great Works


The Quincunx
Charles Palliser, 1989
788 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April 2010

I'm taking a chance here. First, The Quincunx is not a true "classic," in terms of age. Second, it's long (800 pages)...at times overly complicated...and other times downright tiresome.

But it's a rare reviewer who would tell you to stay away from it. If you read this book, you will lose sleep...forget meals...miss work...and ignore your family. You will become depraved.

Heavily influenced by Charles Dickens, Palliser uses every trick in Dickens' books—even appropriating the great author's middle name for his hero—to create his brilliant, imaginative novel. Palliser out Dickens Dickens.

Set in the 19th century, The Quincunx is a mystery. The story follows the fortunes—or lack thereof—of young John Mellamphy as he seeks to restore himself and his mother to their rightful inheritance. Threatened by mysterious enemies, mother and son flee to London and there begin a downward spiral into poverty. This is Dickens' London, and Palliser, building on 12 years of research, paints a vivid portrait—from speech patterns and apparel to sewer tunnels and fog.

London's Byzantine nature reflects the mystery at the heart of the story—a twisted puzzle that John struggles to make sense of. Betrayal follows betrayal, one villain more unsavory than the last. Who are these people and why are they intent on his destruction?

Still, each disaster reveals more pieces of the puzzle, bringing John closer to a solution, to knowledge of his own identity and his rightful place in the world.

Warning: the ending is inconclusive. "Postmodern" as said in Lit Biz—it denies reader expectations and the desire for good to vanquish evil. Like John Fowles The French Lieutenant's Woman ... or Dickens' own Great Expectations, this book doesn't seek to satisfy our longing for happy endings; that would be easy. Instead, the book settles for possible outcomes, pretty much like life itself.

Happy ending or not, The Quincunx is a compulsive read. And if reading it for a book club, consider dividing it in two.

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