Author: Charles Palliser
Release Date: November 4, 2013
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Mystery
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
The year is 1863, and 17-year-old Richard Shenstone has been expelled from Cambridge University. He arrives home to find things much changed: his father is dead, and his mother and sister are barely scraping by. He expects they will be thrilled to see him, but he’s disturbed to learn they’d rather have him gone. They’ve been keeping secrets from him, and when threatening letters begin to surface in town, fingers start to point to Richard. What are his mother and sister hiding, and who is behind these awful letters?
A strange, atmospheric novel, Rustication is both a mystery and an intense character exploration. As Richard tries to uncover the secrets around him, readers aren’t fully able to trust this unreliable narrator, leading to a delicious and twisty read.
If you say the words “gothic mystery,” I’m there, with my hands out, eyes pleading with you to hand over the book you’re recommending. I’m a complete sucker for gothic mysteries, and it’s been rare that I don’t immediately take to one. Rustication is an incredibly atmospheric historical mystery, and though it took me a little while to warm to it, I can definitively say that it’s a book that gothic fans should not miss.
Let’s start with the main character, Richard. Rustication is told through his eyes; specifically, through his journal. From the beginning, it’s clear that he’s not being completely honest. Whether those secrets have any bearing on the main storyline is irrelevant; as soon as the reader gets that sense, he becomes an unreliable narrator. He’s also a bit paranoid, convinced everyone is out to get him. It’s interesting to dissect his thoughts, to try and understand what’s really happening as opposed to what he’s narrating. But it’s also difficult to discount that there are strange things afoot around him. Richard isn’t trustworthy (or likeable, really) but that doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get him.
Palliser does a great job with the more subtle details in Rustication. This isn’t a mystery in which things jump out at you. It’s the underhandedness, the subtle manipulations, that are on center stage here. A lot of times, it’s just a feeling that things aren’t quite right. This atmosphere is crucial to the book’s success, yet at the same time, it means it’s hard to get into. It draws you in slowly rather than with a bang, though it’s absolutely worth sticking with.
Rustication is a novel that will keep you guessing, deliciously throwing one small revelation after another into the mix. It’s not a traditional mystery by any means; it’s an incredibly well written, literary novel with strange, unsympathetic characters. It’s a credit to Palliser’s writing ability that these characters are fascinating, rather than odious, and it absolutely makes this novel worth reading.