Ever since I read The Quincunx I have been hooked on the novels of Charles Palliser. He has a gift for writing complex Victorian-style mysteries that can stand comparison with those past masters Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Certain themes run through Betrayals (as funny as it is mysterious) and The Unburied and turn up again in Rustication, Palliser’s latest novel for which we have had to wait almost as long as it takes to take for a case to go through Chancery! (He also wrote, and I read, a novel set in the twentieth century, The Sensationalist: it doesn’t belong in the canon.)
Palliser’s plots are so complex the reader must pay close attention. Every word counts; the Preface or Foreword must be studied as well as the Afterword; even the Appendix and the List of Names or Characters need to be read and enjoyed. The choice of names for the characters rivals Dickens’s gift in this regard. If there is a map or a diagram, it means something. In Rustication (whose arrival I alerted you to in an earlier blog) every word of the handwritten anonymous letters should be looked at with care. These are mysteries and, to an extent, they are unravelled but the reader is still left, at the end, with questions that will nag away and never be answered. In other words, I loved this book.
Palliser takes readers back to the misty, rainy, snow-covered, and cold imagined town of Thurchester, which at a guess, might be somewhere in East Anglia, the location for The Unburied, but there are no characters who stray across into the new novel. Instead, we have the young narrator, Richard Shenstone who, in the winter of 1863, has been ‘rusticated’ from his Cambridge college for reasons that are teased out of him over the course of the book. He returns to an isolated house on the edge of the sea marshes to which his mother and sister have been literally rusticated following the death of his clerical father. No one in the book has an unblemished character and some are significantly more blemished than others.
Shenstone, of course, keeps a journal which someone (whose initials are CP) has recently uncovered in the County Records Office. An earlier ‘someone’ has gathered up the alarming anonymous letters and has pasted them into the journal at the point in Shenstone’s narrative where they were delivered to their appalled recipients. As young Richard relates his efforts to solve the whole mystery, he advances theory after theory, solution after solution, only to have each one confounded by a new turn of events and further revelations. His own reliability is not helped by his habit of smoking opium and his teenage sexuality that get in the way of clear-headed analysis. As the net closes, Shenstone suddenly finds that he is still inside it, along with his sister and his mother.
My hope is that if you have not read any of his other novels, Rustication will encourage you to seek them out. I hope too that Palliser has at least one more novel to come. I would recommend it, even unread! Meanwhile, I will give this one 8 out of 10.