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Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone, sacred, rare, extremely valuable, and cursed. Possessed by a scheming, wicked man and inherited by his niece, according to the will. Delivered during the day, and stolen in the night, while the doors are all locked and a mastiff and a bloodhound are set free.
Who takes it? The young girl, stealing her own diamond? Her cousin, the delivering man, who wants to protect the diamond as well as the family? Her other cousin, the man of the ladies' committees? Her mother, who still holds a grudge against the dead man and fears the danger and chaos the stone may bring? A servant with the past as a thief? Another maid or servant? The man present earlier at the party who seems to know a lot about the diamond and its origin? The doctor who at the party makes some strange remarks on it? Who steals it? When? Why? How? How to find out? What happens to the diamond afterwards? How to get it back?
The Moonstone is a detective story. A sensational novel. Popular fiction. But what a fine book it is. It is engrossing, captivating. It is unputdownable, to be read in a rush to find out what the clues mean, what happens next and who's done it. And yet, not to be read only for the final twist, the discovery of the thief, and not to be thrown away afterwards, because The Moonstone is so much more. In this remarkably well-written epistolary novel, Wilkie Collins tells the story in the voices of many characters- the documents, each representing 1 character's limited perspective and knowledge, are pieces of the whole picture, different facets of the truth, and at the same time bring life to the characters, make them breathe. Take Miss Clack, for instance. She is a religious, conservative, backward, insincere woman who takes every opportunity to try to convert people to Christianity. Because she is this kind of person, she brings her books and tracts and goes from 1 room to another to spread them around the house. Because she goes from room to room, she happens to be in the right place to listen to a proposal and thus can narrate it to the readers. Later, because she is this kind of person, she adds fuel to the fire and indirectly pushes her cousin Rachel out of the house. However, she's not simply an observer of the events, a narrator, a tool to advance the plot. Nor is she there simply to complement to others' perception and depiction of Godfrey Ablewhite. She exists in her own right. Miss Clack is irritating and (unintentionally) amusing, and therefore interesting in her way. As a religious, poor and hypocritical character, who cares about nothing but trying to convert others and who expresses her offence by saying that it's impossible to offend her (also a way of convincing herself), she's vivid, convincing and unforgettable (plus, she's an unreliable narrator, her part is well-done). The same can be said about all the other characters, who exist in their own right, with a life of their own, intriguing and fascinating the readers because of their individuality, their personalities and peculiarities, not simply there to "make their moves on the chequer-board of intrigue", as Dorothy L. Sayers notes in the introduction.
A good read. Highly recommended to fans of Sherlock Holmes, and Victorian literature lovers, especially those who are more familiar with authors such as the Brontes and Dickens. If you generally like something very different, give it a try anyway.



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1 tidbit I'm pretty sure you don't know: in Vietnam there is a practice called bói Kiều, similar to Sortes Vergilianae or Gabriel Betteredge's use of Robinson Crusoe, a form of fortune-telling by opening at random Nguyễn Du's Truyện Kiều (English: The Tale of Kieu), randomly picking a passage and interpreting it and making predictions. 
Our national epic is also used for divinations. 

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