The Quincunx

The Quincunx
-by Charles Palliser
800 pages (1990)

Fell flat

Reading Palliser's first epic, The Quincunx, is a bit like fishing – it requires a great deal of patience (and a good memory wouldn’t hurt either). Whether or not the “catch de jour” is worth all the effort or not is entirely another story.

Quincunx is a sprawling and ambitious drama set in early 19th century England. It takes the form of a narrative from the perspective of a young man who endures ruthless betrayal and misuse at the hands of countless relatives, with hopes of despoiling his inheritance. The plot is duly peppered with plenty of twists and turns, capable of confusing and puzzling even the most avid of bookworms. 

Granted, Palliser has obviously done his homework. Throughout the novel, he skillfully sets the scene with remarkable detail – sometimes too much so. As a result I found the actual story to be lacking any real depth, giving it a somewhat two-dimensional ambiance, amidst all of its rich detail. With all the unnecessary minutiae, secondary characters, and behind-the-scene goings-on, Palliser easily lost the “heart” of the plot. 

When push comes to shove, I feel Quincunx is a bit too overdone for my literary taste. I prefer the subtle and mysterious, to the blatant fan-fare of melodramatic storytelling. I failed to connect with the plot and its characters on virtually every level. Palliser has been hailed as the next Charles Dickens, but I honestly failed to see any striking resemblance in style to evoke such an esteemed comparison. Quincunx was disappointingly lackluster…a mediocre read at best. Nevertheless, I can justify giving it a 2 ½ star rating for Palliser’s fine attention to detail, if nothing else.

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