May 04, 09
Read in April, 2009
Well, all you Iain Pears fans can relax -- he's written a terrific book again. (I say this as an Iain Pears fan who had to throw The Dream of Scipio against the wall with great force.)
As in An Instance of the Fingerpost, Pears uses multiple narrators to tell the story of financier John Stone's death after a fall out a window. The multiple narrators, in turn, narrate stories taking place in different eras, each illuminating the mystery at the heart of it all: who killed John Stone, and why? The story begins in 1953 Paris; continues in 1909 London; goes back to Paris, this time in 1890; continues in 1867 Venice; and finally takes us back to London, 1909.
Yes, I know -- sounds like a big mess, even more so when you take into account that fact that one long section of the book has a a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it (think Global Financial Crisis). But Pears pulls it off beautifully, with as sure a narrative hand as I've ever seen; just when you're worried that he's finally written a check he can't cash, damned if he doesn't go and cash it (although sometimes you have to wait around 500 pages to figure out how). And unlike many writers of this genre, Pears can flat out write. He's not a flashy stylist, but not a single sentence descends to the banal. And to make matters even better, Pears takes the time to write characters who are well-rounded and real, even in a book where a lesser writer would have decided that symbols and shorthand would suffice (are you listening, Caleb Carr? No, I don't suppose you are, actually. Never mind.).
The book does suffer somewhat from the same malady that afflicts many books with multiple narrators -- namely, the voice doesn't change all that much from narrator to narrator (compare this book, for example, with David Mitchell's tour de force in Cloud Atlas, which you'd swear was written by six different people).
But that's really a quibble, as Pears has written an absolutely ripping yarn. Although readers more clever than I might be able to figure out the Big Reveal early on, they'll have so much fun following the characters and back and forth from one city and era to the next (and back again), and they'll be so involved with unraveling this intricately layered story, that they probably won't care too much.
Go read this.