9780374280352 / 0374280355

The Unburied


Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux



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About the book:

Though putatively a mystery set (mostly) in the Victorian age, Charles Palliser's The Unburied has more in common with Umberto Eco than Arthur Conan Doyle. Like The Name of the Rose, this novel is set in a scholarly community and features a lost manuscript as the McGuffin of choice. And here, too, the mystery is not really what the book is about at all. Palliser's tale centers on Edward Courtine, a Cambridge don with a bee in his bonnet about Alfred the Great. It doesn't take a great medievalist to figure out that Courtine has allowed emotion to cloud his reason concerning the Saxon monarch: his version of Alfred's life and character is so forgiving as to be downright suspicious.

When it is suggested that a source dear to his heart may in fact be fraudulent, he accuses his critics of cowardice. According to Courtine, those revisionist scoundrels doubt the veracity of his beloved source "because their own self-serving cynicism is reproached by the portrait of the king that Grimbald offers. You see, his account confirms how extraordinarily brave and resourceful and learned Alfred was, and what a generous and much-loved man." Now Courtine has come to the cathedral town of Thurcester because he believes Grimbald's original manuscript may be in the cathedral library--a manuscript that he hopes will validate his own version of the great king's reign.

Palliser takes his time setting up his story, seeding it with clues that more often than not lead to dead ends. We learn, for example, that Courtine was once married, that his wife ran off with another man, and that he blames his school pal Austin Fickling for the rupture in his marital bliss. Dark doings at the cathedral are also hinted at, with quite a lot of space devoted to a murder that occurred centuries earlier. Meanwhile, ecclesiastical renovations turn up some unpleasant surprises--and as yet another murder ensues, Courtine is swept up in less scholarly pursuits. As the hapless academic (a Watson without a Holmes) pursues one red herring after another, it becomes apparent that Courtine's psyche is the real mystery on hand. History, he discovers, can obscure as much as it elucidates. All these years, his obsession with an idealized past has provided an excellent refuge from the realities of his present. In the end, what he uncovers is the secret of himself--and the reader of The Unburied is treated to a fine ghost story, in which the ghosts are quite literally all in the mind. --Alix Wilber

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