Picks and Pans Review: The Quincunx

updated 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Charles Palliser

Palliser, who teaches literature at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, spent 12 years writing this first novel. In all regards it was time well spent.

The Quincunx is a bulging, beguiling recreation of a Victorian novel, written in elegant period prose. The style may draw you in, but it is the story that will entrance you, particularly once our young hero reaches rough-and-tumble London.

It is a saga of villainy and avarice, of innocence constantly betrayed. Echoing parts of Dickens's Great Expectations and Bleak House, it involves a costive lawsuit and a young man's efforts to recover an inheritance. Adding color is a large, vivid cast of characters, such as the disputatious, philosophical duo who run the world's worst Punch and Judy show.

Palliser's picture of Regency society has little of the dollhouse cuteness with which we have come to imbue the era. Take this description of a London market on a Saturday night: "In the flaring gaslights the faces—the features often squashed together or misshapen—loomed at us from the shadows like a theatrical show... always, in one form or another, misery and fear and shame and desperation, whether clothed in rags or in tawdry finery, and everywhere a profligacy of children."

Palliser has managed to couch a rousing tale in what is—let's go out on a limb—the best new Victorian novel you'll read this year. (Ballantine, $25)

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