An Instance of the Fingerpost


by Iain Pears

The only negative thing I can say about An Instance of the Fingerpost is that even after you emerge from your den, tired from the last push to finish its 800 pages, you still won't understand the title of the book. Other than that, you'll be pretty happy because you'll have just finished the finest historical novel ever written.

In the best tradition of Rashomon, Instance retells the events of the late 1600s around the college of Oxford four times, from the point of view of four different narrators. The first is a scientifically curious priest, who introduces us to the cast of characters we will visit and revisit over the course of the book. His retelling is simple and comprehensible. But, after that book, Instance truly takes off, offering three more versions of events that are neither simple nor easily comprehensible. Unlike Rashomon with its carefully neutral attitude towards its various narrators, Instance is quite clear about it ordering: each narrator tells more of the events than the previous.

After finishing the first quarter of the book, you'll be hard-pressed to imagine how those events could hold your attention three more times. That's the true magic of Instance, as it finds much more than you thought could possibly be there, both in the personal relations among the major characters, and in growing the impact and meaning of the story.

Like any good historical novel, Instance is full of the feeling and character of its place and time. In Oxford at that time, the experiments into natural science were just groping towards an understanding of chemistry and physics, and yet were already encountering innate resistance that in later centuries would condemn stem cell research. That and a host of other minutae of the time inform and deepen the book beyond its impressive plot structure, and put final rest to any thought that historical times have nothing to say about the actions of today's people.