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The Unburied

by Charles Palliser

(Farrar Straus Giroux, $24.00, 403 pages, hardcover, November 1999.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

A boy's brush with violence sets his life on an inexorable path. Historians are fascinated cover scanwith the strange doings of their predecessors, obscure events of the distant past, and lost manuscripts. The transcendent and mundane aspects of music, religion, education, and history mingle tensely as characters question their sense of identity. The overt and covert agendas of academia and clergy clash, exposing unsuspected greed, pettiness, bitterness, cruelty, and contradictions. A mysterious murder feeds the macabre imagination of a whole community.

The setting, however, is neither Deptford nor Toronto.

Charles Palliser's new novel, The Unburied, as many readers will have gathered from the above description, invites comparisons to the famous trilogies of Robertson Davies, just as his previous work, The Quincunx, brought to mind the world of Charles Dickens.

The early Davies (The Deptford Trilogy) invited readers into worlds of wonder, whereas later (The Cornish Trilogy) he assaulted us with irascible preachiness. Palliser strikes a balance between these two poles. Religion and ethics provide an intellectual backdrop to his complex story, making it rich and stimulating--but, unlike in Davies, they are used neither to greatest nor to worst effect.

The Unburied is a skilfully structured edifice, a story within a story within a story.... Its details and characters do recall Davies, but the storytelling and the structure are more reminiscent of the work of 19th-century writers of the macabre Arthur Machen and Robert Louis Stevenson. The main story is generously enlivened by other interwoven stories, some of which give way to yet more stories. Both Machen and Stevenson explicitly borrowed that narrative device from The Thousand and One Nights, and Palliser makes very good use of that technique here.

The frame is provided by a character who is only peripheral in the main text. He is the boy whose brush with violence marks his life forever (recalling--though in no way imitative of--the boyhood escapade of Dunstan Ramsay that kicks off The Deptford Trilogy). The main text, "edited by" the narrator of the framing sequence, is a first-person account describing the week Edward Courtine, a historian from Cambridge, spent in the small community of Thurchester. He is the guest of an estranged college comrade, Austin Fickling, whose friendship he hopes to rekindle. Dr. Courtine makes professional use of his holiday by searching through the school library for a document lost some 200 years ago, a text referring to the period of Alfred the Great--providing yet another layer to the narrative.

The murderous conspiracy that surrounded its loss is echoed by the mysterious situation into which Courtine is now drawn. During Courtine's visit a savage murder (dubbed The Thurchester Mystery) shocks the whole town.

In The Unburied, the reader is invited to untangle a complex web of intrigue that spans centuries and to explore painful bonds that keep characters tied to each other. Page after page, the text gets increasingly fascinating, culminating in three instances of revelation.

The first, dealing with the 200-year-old intrigue and the missing document, is well integrated and satisfying.

The second unveils the unspoken event that estranged Courtine from his friend decades ago and provides the first major disappointment. From the beginning, the dark event in Courtine and Fickling's past is hinted at but not described; it's presented as something unspeakable and vile. When it's finally revealed, it's unspeakably banal. The author would have done better to have come clean earlier on rather than drag this out for some 300 pages. If anything, the character's epiphany would have been more convincing, since the reader would have known of his inner struggle from the first. As it stands, the epiphany and the disclosure of the inner conflict are simultaneous, and happen while the reader feels duped and cheated.

The third and final revelation--this one in the closing frame--brings to light previously hidden aspects of The Thurchester Mystery. Unfortunately, the framing narrator utterly fails to prove or convince that he could possess the information he imparts--despite the great efforts to meticulously explain how it is that he, and only he, possesses this knowledge.

Critics complained that, despite its great qualities, The Quincunx ran out of steam at the end. I'm afraid the same can be said of The Unburied. The final revelations are unequal to the high expectations set by the text. In light of The Unburied's formidable strengths, its flaws are jarringly evident. The book is a fascinating journey. Sadly, journey's end is much less so.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday 17 April 1999.

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