Crosses. Double crosses. Triple crosses! Rarely in literature have I come across a cast of characters with so little regard for their fellow man. With such greedy desires and nasty intentions and wishes for revenge. The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is more Dickensian than Dickens himself. To say that the story is labyrinthine in the telling and complex in its scope is a vast understatement. If I had thought to create a flow chart to help explain what takes place in the story and help keep track of the players in the dirty deeds I might have had a better chance of fully appreciating and understanding just what Palliser has managed to pull off. The character list in the book covers four pages and each and every one plays some role in this intricate tale about a will, a codicil, an impoverished heir and the desire to have justice. This is a big, filling up your entire lungs, breath of a book. All 780 pages of it. To have finally turned the last page of it feels like quite an accomplishment indeed (and a release of that same breath)!
Happily the reading of this very circuitous tale didn't defeat me, but I fear writing about it just might. I'm not sure I can untangle the copious elements to explain just what happens. No, I'm sure I can't. This story begins and ends in the village of Melthorpe on a vast estate with young Master Johnnie Huffam and his nursemaid. What he witnesses, a family servant talking to a strange man, and then the theft of a letter-case of his mother's which once belonged to her father, sets in motion all that will follow. And a lot follows. What happens to these characters? John and his mother? What doesn't happen to them might be easier to describe. Had I had the forethought to count I might be able to tell you just how many times John is seized from behind, a hand clamped on his mouth and dragged off, or how many times (or by how many people) he is wanted dead and very nearly murdered. I think Palliser must touch on every aspect of Victorian society--the grimness of it, that is. Foggy, dirty, poverty stricken London is what the reader gets a taste of with an occasional glimpse into a comfortable drawing room, but there is far fewer of the latter than the former.
The story does come full circle, but it takes its time getting there. A number of years pass from start to finish, half a dozen or more perhaps. Master Johnnie becomes John, though in fear of his enemies he will go by other names. He and his mother go from reasonably comfortable circumstances to become penniless. They leave Melthorpe for London to hide from their enemies, and their enemies number more than a few. Part of the problem is that they don't always know just who their enemies are, who can they trust. There are those who want nothing more than the total destruction of this last Huffam child, and then there are others who simply are callous, heartless and cruel--equally to Johnnie and anyone else who might pass their way. There is the occasional decent man or woman, but it's almost always someone not really in a position to give them real help.
If you know or are familiar with Charles Dickens's Bleak House, which is about a legal suit that is forever wending its way through the courts, then you have in a nutshell Palliser's tale (well, more or less). The prize is this vast estate, numerous smaller properties, and perhaps quite a lot of money, that more than one person wants to get their hands on. And then there is a codicil to the original will. In this story, whether the heir is dead or alive, and whether other key players survive other characters will determine who gets the inheritance. It's very precarious business, there is a lot of supposition, and a lot of assumptions. Johnnie's grandfather, who was meant to own the estate outright, was murdered. And then the will turns up missing. Johnnie's mother has the codicil and then she doesn't. With nothing else to use as leverage, it must be sold. John Huffam is the heir, but only if he can prove his legitimacy, only if he can find the will, can hold on to the codicil and survive other members of this extensive family. Yes, it really is very complicated.
If you think you know what "poor" is, you might read this story and then reassess your ideas. Of course we're talking of Victorian poor, which is surely in a class all its own. John and his mother lose everything they have--literally and figuratively, or have it stolen from them. They lose the clothes off their backs, must sell every last item in their possession or nearly every item. They end up in the work house and worse. There's a lot of "worse" in Victorian England.
If you like your stories big and broad, rich in detail and colorful characters, villains in abundance, but with a worthy hero, you could do worse than read Charles Palliser's The Quincunx. But be prepared for a story that requires thought and attention. Ultimately this is a story that is a puzzle with many, many pieces that need to be fitted very precisely together. Palliser does help things along with some explication, but it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of it all.
I will admit that I'm a little ambivalent about this book. During the reading I ran hot and cold in response to the telling. There is a lot to take in, and I had moments where it felt all uphill, if you know what I mean. That said, however, there were also many page-turning moments, too. I tried Dickens's Bleak House once, and got caught up in the minutiae of Chancery in that story, but I think after finishing Palliser, I can tackle it. All of a sudden every other book on my reading pile looks like a cake walk! Although I don't think I'll pick up Bleak House anytime soon, I think I do need a good Victorian story this winter--maybe something by Trollope or one of the Brontes. But hopefully nothing concerning wills or codicils!