Some people bring wine to dinner. Some bring dessert. My friends bring books, which is, I suppose, why they’re my friends. One night, a ‘friend’ – I use the term loosely – cast a cloud over my life of unmolested tranquillity by presenting me with The Quincunx by Charles Palliser. (A quincunx is a group of five objects arranged so that four form a square and a fifth sits in their centre, as on a dice. I had to look it up too.) A master of the soft sell, he simply said, ‘Got this at a jumble sale. It’s kind of Dickensian. Right up your street.’ Then, rather than handing it to me, he placed it on a table and backed away, as if he had lifted a family curse by passing it on to the innocent.
The Quincunx is ‘kind of Dickensian’ in the same way that the Taj Mahal is kind of a nifty tomb. Even the name of its central character, John Huffam, is lifted from Palliser’s great inspirer, Charles John Huffam Dickens, but so to describe The Quincunx is almost to belittle it. At more than twelve hundred pages, perhaps half a million lovingly conjured words, it is as long as anything penned by Dickens, with a wheels-within-wheels complexity that Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle together could not have bettered. (Thankfully, there are genealogical charts, maps of early nineteenth-century London, a glossary of over a hundred proper names, and even a note on currency.) In addition, Palliser paints his characters with a subtlety of touch and linguistic exuberance that would have made Dickens glad to call them his own. Here we meet Mr Pentecost:
His face, which wore an expression which I can only describe as one of indignant good humour, was red-cheeked and adorned by little half-lens eye-glasses above which bristled a pair of very bushy eyebrows that gave his physiognomy an expression of permanent surprise. His appearance did not efface but recorded the history of his dressing: a neckerchief carelessly tied, s
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