Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book review: 'Rustication' by Charles Palliser

“Rustication” is an old term for being suspended from college. As Charles Palliser’s novel opens, a “preface” tells us we will be reading the journal of Richard Shenstone during his winter 1863 rustication from Cambridge. A notorious murder occurred at the time, and the narrator indicates the journal will shed light on it.

The journal opens as Richard comes home to the southern coast of England and a rundown house that is rumored to be haunted. Here Richard’s mother and his sister Effie have retreated to live pecuniarily after the death of his father.

This being the 19th century, manners and social standing are of the utmost importance, and keeping information from others a chief means of dealing with it. Richard is not told the circumstances of his father’s death, why his mother and sister want him first to leave the house and then to stay, or why his attending the big ball with Effie is suddenly so important. 

Richard may be a randy, opium-smoking 17-year-old with secrets of his own (including why he was rusticated), but he is determined to ferret out not only what his sister is up to but also who has been mutilating farm animals and sending crass and threatening letters to the neighbors. The disturbing notes are “pasted” into the journal (i.e., rendered in a handwriting font). Richard also includes his own un-gentlemanly thoughts, feelings, and sometimes, actions, towards women, particularly the young maid in the household.

Charles Palliser renders the landscape of his novel with great skill, convincingly conjuring 19th century England, which is his specialty. However, I found the story difficult and distasteful, the main point seeming to be showing that people were just as lustful and violent in the past as they are today. I was ready to give up early on, but once I was about half-way through, the mystery intensified and held my interest better. I was also better able to appreciate the detailed plotting. I just wish the subject matter didn’t strike me as so very nasty.

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