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The Quincunx
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122 of 127 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2002
With a huge, colourful cast of characters, The Quincunx by British author Charles Palliser is, like Edward Rutherfurd's London, the kind of book that comes along all too rarely--a book wherein one loses all sense of the present as one is transported back through history to another time and place. This is a novel that is at once a family saga, an adventure, and a mystery with plenty of twists and surprises. With it, Palliser has proven himself to be a master storyteller, and it has been a long time since I have enjoyed a book as much as this. In fact, I'm not sure it didn't surpass London--another historical of epic proportions that I highly recommend--as my favourite novel by a contemporary author. (I ought to mention I've yet to read Eco's The Name of the Rose).
At 781 pages, however, this historical masterpiece set in early nineteenth-century England is not for the faint of heart. At stake is a legacy--title to a huge estate of land. Though the story literally takes place during the span of several years, it is a tale about an extended family (and their relationships with one another) whose beginnings take us back five generations. Bit by bit the family history is revealed--and it is a history rife with intrigue, double dealings, scandal, and even murder. What makes the revelation of the family history so exciting and so important is its relevance to the novel's present, for not only is the identity of our young protagonist and narrator, Johnnie Mellamphy, at issue, but his very survival hangs delicately in the balance.
Those for whom this engrossing, unputdownable novel will be a special treat are those who enjoy solving word or logic puzzles (I am a puzzle buff myself). To be enjoyed to its fullest, this is a book that benefits from active participation on the part of the reader; indeed, it is (in my opinion) to a certain extent mandatory. As the story unfolds, Palliser provides the reader with both outright information and clues (some of which are quite subtle) as to who's who, what really happened, and why. Palliser enjoys teasing us, and some of his subtle clues result in our drawing the wrong (though perfectly plausible) conclusions. At other times (particularly near the end), he refuses to spell things out for us, leaving us to rifle back to previous parts for a confirmation (and perhaps even an explanation) of what happened. For those with ready access to such, Palliser would even have one delving into reference books in order to find the dates when certain events occurred (like Johnnie's birth, for example), for they are all revealed by reference to other events which occurred at or around the same time.
I might just mention: I found it very helpful to create a family tree (in pencil!) as the geneology unfolded--be it from village gossip, facts, or my own suppositions. I also set out who would inherit if certain conditions were met and identified these individuals on the tree. Very early on, I began to dog-ear important passages that I thought I may wish to refer back to (to make the rifling back process easier!). Most importantly, I found this to be the sort of book that benefits from reflection, for it is by logically following an idea through in one's mind that one can reach a number of accurate conclusions ahead of the protagonist. Don't think that this will ruin the surprises for you, for it won't. Palliser, I have no doubt, expects no less of us.
In conclusion, I highly, HIGHLY recommend this to anyone looking for an intelligent, captivating, masterfully written novel. I simply cannot praise it highly enough. It is not, however, for the individual who expects to be spoon-fed by an author. In other words, if you are looking for something one can read while putting the brain in neutral, you'd best look elsewhere. With this novel, what you get out of it is directly proportionate to what you put into it!
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51 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2004
I first read Charles Palliser's Quincunx more than ten years ago and I vividly remember being so wrapped up in the world he created that I would spend every spare moment of the day reading, perhaps only a couple of paragraphs at a time. As it was such a big book, it was my constant companion for a couple of months.

The obvious comparison of this book is to the classic Dickens masterpieces, and the similarities abound; a young boy at the center of a story that spans the world of Victorian London, shady characters, hard times ....many of the classic Dickens elements are there. While the readers of 1800's had a comtemporary understanding of the world of which Dickens wrote, we in the 21st century sometimes have a difficult time grasping all the subtleties and nuances in his texts. Palliser, being a modern scholar of the period, takes the time to help us through some of the aspects of Victorian England with which we may not be all that familiar. For example, right at the beginning of the book before the story even begins, there is a breakdown of Victorian English currency. I found this very helpful, as I really didn't know the difference between a ha-penny and a sixpence, or a pound and a quid. Also included in this book are some wonderful maps of London as it was at the time of the narrative. I've spent many pleasant hours exploring these maps; not only finding various locations within this book, but ferreting out locations that have been mentioned in several novels of the period by authors like Conan Doyle and Anne Perry.

After more than a decade and countless other books, many of the fine points and details of this story have escaped me, yet the feeling of the book, the sense of realism and authenticity have continued to linger. More than anything, the vividly described locations and palpable ambiance of the city have remained. Few books have stood out in my mind for such a long period as has The Quincunx. Don't be put off by the length of the book; if you are a fan of wonderful adventure and mystery, and of Victorian era England, you will not be disappointed with this wonderfully evocative novel.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2005
Just how do you account for the outrageous audacity of a first-time novelist who seems to have set himself two awesome tasks:

1) To create a plot so intricate in design, so mind-boggling in its complexity, so inventive in its incidents, so breathtaking in its ramifications, that it would have been impossible if it hadn't actually come to have been written.

2)To recreate 19th century England in all its Dickensian sprawl and largeness, to imagine that bustling cacophony in all its glitter, dazzle, filth, sordidness and cruelty, and to do so with great aplomp so that the act of reading becomes a truly immersive experiance.

That Palliser even attempted this story at all is incredible. That he has managed to pull it off is miraculous.

The story follows a boy and his mother as they run for their lives trying to evade people who are out to get an important will. It follows the fortunes of five branches of the Huffam family, all out to inherit the vast Huffam estate. The boy and his mother are hounded at every corner of London by cut-throat criminals, shady lawyers, cunning relatives and the like. They are reduced to begging in the streets.

As the storyline and the subplots swirl into dazzling arabesques of seeming impossibility, the reader gasps at the continual surprises, the jolting twists and the disorienting turns. Palliser is unrelenting in the miseries he hurls at his protagonists, and unremitting in the shocks he delivers to the reader.The novel is truly impossible to put down. I first read it in 1994 and re-read it recently. It is just as amazing the second time round. The story enfolds your waking hours and you free-fall vertiginously into a dreamworld that is entire and complete.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2001
A young boy, a will and a mystery set in Regency England.
I read this book originally in the early 1990's and have just finished reading it for the second time.
If I had placed a review immediately after the first reading I think that I would have shared other reviewers' relative disappointment at the ending.
However after this second visit, I now think that a tidier ending with all loose ends accounted for, would not have done justice to the complexities of the rest of the book.
Looking at the story now, it seems to me to be an entirely satisfactory and deeply considered work of art, one that the master of this sort of novel, Wilkie Collins would surely have approved of.
Very few writers have Pallisers skill to immerse the reader so quickly in the world he describes. Once you have dipped your toe in this book (say 40 pages or so), then the rest of the 1100 pages or so swim by without your noticing its extraordinary length.
Indeed I believe that you will become so engrossed that it will be with increasing irritation that you find yourself having to put the book aside for another night.
If you have any feeling at all for the historical novel, or enthralling mysteries, then be good to yourself and start reading now!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2004
A Dickensian tome - 780 pages of the decline and fall of a young boy and his mother in 19th-century England. It's a book with a plot that to describe as labyrinthine would be an understatement. Scores of characters, twists, turns, red herrings, various interpretations, Rashomon-style, of the past; you get the point. The hero and narrator, John Huffam, has a past shrouded in secrecy - in fact he turns out to be heir to one of the largest estates in England. Unfortunately, his identity, the codicil which names him heir and even a copy of the original will have all been suppressed. Several people are out to do him and his mother harm, even kill them. Gradually, as John realizes his own story, he thirsts for Justice against those that oppressed him. The end is left ambiguous; that's not the point to this book. Quincunx makes it a point to stress that everyone, even old man Clothier who wants him dead, has his or her point of view and cannot be judged quickly. Yet the book belies this - the things that John's enemies do in their self interest verge on sadistic evil, while the wrongs that John commits in pursuing his interest are accidental, even if selfish. Clothier and his bunch will kill, happily; Mrs Fortisquence revels in seeing John and his mother ground into poverty, indeed joyfully steers them wrong; the Mompessons are arrogant and deceitful in a way that John and his mother never are. So I did find the book, for all its layers of complexity, a bit old fashioned in its rendering of good and evil characters. All in all, of course, this is a wholly admirable homage to Dickens, structured with care, and utterly engrossing, a page turner to be devoured despite its size.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2001
I have just finished reading "The Quincunx" and as yet have not been able to find my way back to the present time after having followed the adolescent John, the novel's hero, on his eventful wanderings through the England of the 1820s. John - without knowing it at first - will be pronounced heir to a vast estate in Northern England if certain documents are laid before a court. As was to expected, there are other parties involved that would greatly benefit either by withholding those documents or by killing John, and that is why he finds himself constantly on the run and hiding in London, that overwhelmingly multifarious metropolis, eventually finding (almost) all the answers to his questions.
At roughly 800 pages this might seem to be a frighteningly voluminous book, but the story yields so many fascinating details and John is such an endearing character that I was literally swept along the pages and managed to finish the book within a week. Indisputably, Mr Palliser's narrative technique bears a great resemblance to Charles Dickens' writing style, but as for who is the better writer let it just be said that I was equally moved by "The Quincunx" as I was filled with enthusiasm when I read "David Copperfield" a couple of years ago - and this should be sufficient proof of the magnificence of Mr Palliser's achievement!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 24, 1999
Simply put, this is the best book I've ever read, and probably the most well written book I ever will read. I read this over 6 years ago and it still stays with me. I bought the paperback, and after finishing it, bought the hardcover as well, using the paperback for lending purposes. I have "forced" The Quincunx on many friends who, without failure, thank me for strong-arming them. If you haven't already, you NEED to read this book!
I would love to see a THOROUGH mini-series - is anyone from the BBC or PBS out there?!!!
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 3, 2011
Charles Palliser spent twelve years of his life researching this megalith of a novel. One wonders how much time he spent inditing it! It must have driven him quite mad. I say this because, as so many reviewers here have noted, the book is a decidedly unpleasant read. For the most part, this is true because the novel deals with man's inhumanity to man on so many levels and with so many ramifying iterations on this theme in such lurid, yet terribly accurate, detail that the reader feels as if s/he has been put through some sort of Regency era meat-grinder by the end of it.

In a certain sense, despite the specious similarity to Dickens, particularly Bleak House, The Quincunx is actually the Un-Dickens. No real heroes are villains, per se, but rather a sprawling mass of humanity trying to get on with life as best s/he knows how, and so often failing miserably because, as this extraordinarily well-researched book makes all too clear, that's the way things were. It's actually the book that Dickens couldn't write even if he had wanted to do so because it wouldn't have appealed to his Victorian bourgeois readership.

The abiding theme of the book is the ardent desire to find some grand pattern in one's life, as symbolised by the quincunx, and thereby to bring a sort of justice to one's world, and a meaning to one's life, as does our protagonist in the novel, who goes by so many names in the book that neither we nor he is sure of which is real in the end, so I won't bother bequeathing him one here - Perhaps the best that can be said is that all are equally real - and that this desire brings on a sort of madness, the sort that may temporarily befall the reader of this book. As our rather odd narrator puts it in a caveat towards the end: "We must remember that a pattern - whether of the past or the future - is always arbitrary or partial and that there could always be a different one or a further elaboration of the same one."

To reiterate, the reading of this book is a terribly gruelling experience. I really can't think of to whom I would recommend it save those with an intense interest in the arcana of the London dispossessed in the early part of the 19th Century. It does bring home and make clear a very unsettling truth concerning the human predicament. I'll let Mr. Nolloth expound it:

"I have often wondered if we are not all insane, and what we name sanity is no more than a collective agreement to behave in the same mad ways."

If you immerse yourself in this book, you'll put it down with the very uneasy, but convincing feeling that you and whatever society you inhabit are more than a bit mad, and that this book and its author are somehow waiting for you at the asylum doors.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 2, 2006
Here is a book of over 750 pages that I read almost ten years ago and yet I find myself still haunted by the ending. Absolutely everything in this book is there for a reason and is alternately sitting on the surface in plain sight or buried deeply in the character and plot, indeed, for maximum effect and to keep yourself from immediately re-reading the entire book--TAKE NOTES! For example, the eponymous fives (Quincunxes) are everywhere, even in the character's names (albeit twists on "five" in different languages). Try this one: Charles John Huffam Dickens (none other) was born on February 7, 1812.

The entire book is an homage to Victorian literature, particularly Dickens. With the salient and notable exception that Palliser's descriptions of the underworld are not couched in acceptable Victorian euphemisms. Definitely a book for the grown-ups, if only because it is so relentlessly dark. Just when you think something good will happen, it doesn't. But there is a point; there is a theme of the "sins of the fathers being visited upon the heads of the children." It is the story of the end (or renaissance? who knows) of a great estate.

The Quincunx demands full attention and rewards study, which is far more difficult than it seems because it is a page-turner. Again, a few helpful hints: bookmark the entrance of every new character. When you get a feeling that you are reading a clue--you are--make a note. Do not take the narrator at face value. Draw a timeline. Otherwise, you will reach the end of the book and the central mystery will remain just that. The author has stated that the answers are right there in the book and I'm not going to ruin it by giving anything away. In fact, even if you run and search the internet all you will find are several competing theories.

So get your notepad ready and read this story of a young man in Victorian England as he discovers who he is and what twists and turns of fate lie in store. The plot really is that simple--but the complications pile upon complication until your head is spinning. If you aren't careful you will end up like me, haunted by the ending. Fortunately, I can now reread it with the internet handy to check every fact. TAKE NOTES!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2005
A combination of deft characterization and an extremely clever maze of a plot make The Quincunx difficult to put down, but after eight hundred pages, when the mystery is finally (or nearly) revealed, it might occur to the reader to wonder why it was neccesary to lead them over so many hurdles just to arrive at a resolution. Often, clever mysteries have a dissapointing aftertaste; but in the case of The Quincunx, there is another layer which not only redeems but makes neccesary the complexities of the narrative.

Dickens has been cited again and again as an influence, and what it reminds me most of, in the end, is Great Expectations, in that it's the story of a gradual and rigorous moral education. In order to appreciate the value of money, the protagonist must first suffer every indignity of povery - so that, when his sweetheart later suggests that they elope and disregard his promised fortune, asking romantically "Is poverty really so terrible?" - he answers bluntly: "Yes." He also comes to realize the motives of his enemies, and that his own might not be as far removed from them as he would like. The story is complicated because reality, both in the book and in the world, is complicated. That the novel's hundreds of characters are all interconnected smacks less of coincidence than the natural interdependance of real people.
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