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Review: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser


The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

Category: Fiction/Historical – Paperback: 1248 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1989

The Quincunx is only just smaller than War and Peace (as you can see in the photo below) so you might expect it to be a slow-burner and difficult to get into with a large cast, complex introductions… You’d be wrong.

The Quincunx - Not Quite W&P

From the title onwards there is plenty of drama and the focus is on a small group of people: a mother and son, their small staff and all those involved in the mother’s murky past who are now intriguing from the sidelines.

So, let’s start with the oh so unique title. A quincunx is the name of a pattern, the one you see on the side of a dice for the number five:

quincunx on a dice

The significance of this pattern is revealed fairly early on when our narrator, a little boy named John Huffam, sees a heraldic badge that includes it. Later it becomes obvious that the family who use the crest are somehow involved with his mother’s shady past and later still more families and connections to the number five are revealed.

Then there’s the subtitle of the book, ‘The Inheritance of John Huffam‘ and that narrator, which is a lovely little in-joke: John Huffam are Charles Dickens’ middle names and I love the idea of including Dickens somehow into this neo-Victorian novel. :)

So what exactly is going on with the shady mother?

Well, not far into the story we realise that Mrs M and the narrator are hiding from ‘The Enemy’ in a country house that is a decent size but very remote, living under false names with a very small household. No one ever comes to visit them, John is not allowed to go anywhere on his own and everything seems to be in suspended animation with one day much like the last – waiting for something to happen.

Each ‘Book’ within the novel begins with an unnamed second narrator who seems rather omniscient showing the reader a little glimpse into what is going on away from Mrs M and John and what ‘The Enemy’ are up to, behind the scenes. These glimpses reveal some of what Mrs M is hiding from, how it connects to John’s inheritance and the scenes give ‘The Enemy’ several faces, plenty of nefarious motives and lots of secrets.

After these interludes John picks up the story. First as a little boy and gradually a year or two older with every Book. His frustration grows with every odd event, every unanswered question and every suspicion that his mother is hiding something. Mrs M meanwhile wails and weeps and makes bad decision after bad decision.

The story does move at a fair pace. Unfortunately it only ever moves in a downward spiral with John and Mrs M suffering calamity after calamity. Mostly they’re Mrs M’s fault.

It’s the portrayal of Mrs M that I was rebelling against when I put the book down.

While Dickens did create bad women and silly ones he also balanced them out with capable ones. His stories hinge on personality and personal responsibility. Palliser meanwhile, seems to have abandoned any attempts to create a female character other than silly, bad ones (though his male characters aren’t exactly rounded his women fare worse).  His casual, exaggerated sexism pushes his plot to breaking point. It’s not only that I don’t like it, it’s that it destroys any logic in his story.

Mrs M has been a ‘single mother’ for over a decade by about page 200 of the story. The three female servants – the cook, the maid and the nurse – look after the cooking, cleaning and child care. Palliser makes Mrs M this oddly anachronistic creature who apparently grew up well-born but doesn’t know how to manage the servants or function financially despite having been married. It jars. The servants can be defined as: one who tells stories to her child that she doesn’t want him to know, one that steals from her for good reasons but does so rather than ask her for help and one who is betraying her to the enemy. This is despite the fact they have apparently known Mrs M and John for nearly a decade.

Palliser asks you to buy into Mrs M being this entirely vacuous woman who is completely oblivious to everything. She has apparently spent a decade doing nothing every single day while her staff raise the child – she hasn’t stitched anything for years we find out later, she does nothing in the garden, doesn’t read, doesn’t meet anyone. Her entire life has been in a sci-fi-like stasis waiting for John to grow up so she can then orbit around his life story as she has none of her own.

By the time mother and son are in London every single woman encountered in the story has been cruel, treacherous, malicious or deceitful and two have been thieves. Since the story is told from John’s perspective his mother (and her wailing and bad decisions) are the obstacle to every good opportunity in his life. She is his true enemy, not the various strangers lurking in the wings and meeting in the dead of night.

EDIT: I did of course forget doomed but lovely Miss Quillam when I was writing this and I have been advised in the comments that Sukey – who begins as a thief and liar – does actually act wonderfully later on in the book towards John. It does go a little way to mitigating the book’s tone but I note my main point about Mrs M still stands and I’m not tempted to pick the book back up!

I abandoned the book roughly a third of the way through because there is only one way I can see this story playing out – with the mother punished for standing in the way of the hero and all the faults the author has loaded her up with. There are no good people in the world of The Quincunx and there is no good. In the same way that the wildly popular books of Ken Follett turn me off with their endless cycles of bad things happening to bad people, I just can’t warm to Palliser or accept his world view.

Other Thoughts: New York Times review from 1990, Shine Shine Shine, Vulpes Libris, Fiddler’s Green apparently own the TV mini-series rights

List of books read in 2012 / Index of Fiction

Author: Alex in a Library

Reader, book blogger and adventuress. My home appears to be morphing into a library... I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInALibrary.

8 thoughts on “Review: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser

  1. You write: “By the time mother and son are in London every single woman encountered in the story has been cruel, treacherous, malicious or deceitful and two have been thieves.”

    There are some exceptions to this sweeping statement: Sukey, for instance; Miss Quilliam, who let John and his mother stay in her rooms and subsidised their living, and the nameless women who provided blankets and food on that final night in the Rookery.

    • I concede that I did overlook Miss Quillam and the blanket wielder – I’ll add them to my summary since they are tragic and doomed victims rather than evil – but Sukey is already included as a thief and deceitful. She does it for ‘good’ reasons but she is dishonest consistently and without even attempting to tell Mrs M that she needs help.

      • After John escapes from the “school” in Yorkshire, he makes his way south (this may be after you abandoned ship) and passes through his old village. He calls on Sukey who feeds him and lets him stay. He has no money, and she offers him all her savings, some 17 shillings in all, of which John will only accept three, to fund his journey back to London.

  2. Sounds like I have not missed much. Recently a Georges Simenon novel left me cold for reasons similar to what you describe here.

    • The shared reading was fun and some of the others are enjoying the book but I wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve not read Simenon but have been toying with the idea, they have lots of his books in my subscription library. Consider me forewarned. :)

  3. I’m sticking with it as I never give up but it really is all doom and gloom.


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