I have read 85 books so far this year, a portion of whom – Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for the King and The Circle, Hiroshi Tasagawa’s All the Emperor’s Men, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, Harvest by Jim Crace, Secrecy by Rupert Thomson, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, You’re All Just Jealous of my Jetpack by Tom Gauld, The Democracy Project by David Graeber, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Ocean at the End of the World by Neil Gaiman, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell, The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom, Familiar by J Robert Lennon, Unexploded by Alison Macleod, Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood, Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, Grimm Tales by Philip Pullman, Difficult Men by Brett Martin and The Property by Rutu Modan – I have enjoyed a great deal. But (and I say this with a happy heart, intoxicated with the pleasures of having finished a tremendous novel) The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s first novel in over a decade and only her third novel in a twenty plus year career, towers over all of them.
Like The Little Friend, in many ways, The Goldfinch concerns a tragedy and its influence upon an individual, horror exerting an influence that perverts the old moral compass. Also like The Little Friend, The Goldfinch stretches its legs, unravels amidst confusion and inertia, but the writing is such, and the plotting is such, and the characterisation is such, that – as long as your reading habits are not formed by the need for an explosion or a murder every thirty pages – you inhabit the world she has populated and you read, warmly, noticing nods here and there to Dickens and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, amongst others, much as you would pass people you know with a nod and a smile if you were going somewhere in a hurry, their presence not distracting you from the story. The novel centres upon Theo Decker, who we first meet in the thrilling, vibrant opening section both as a grown man, hiding out from the police in an Amsterdam hotel, scouring the newspapers for a hint of his crime, and as a young teenager, in the company of his mother, killing time on their way to a disciplinary meeting at Theo’s school. Theo (it feels important to know) has been, before the book begins, on the way to becoming wayward (the therapists that populate Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Test would say that Theo is not set off course by the tragedy that befalls him but rather pushed more forcefully along his way) and he is an initially sulky presence as his mother takes him around a gallery, stopping before a painting that has always meant a lot to her, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. Fabritius, we learn, was a student of Rembrandt, killed as a young man in an explosion, whose work is all but lost, The Goldfinch one of his few surviving paintings and widely regarded as an indication that he was a true great, nipped in the bud etc. A young girl catches Theo’s eye, standing nearby in the company of an older man. The painting draws them all in. Within moments of this congregation going their separate ways, a terrorist bomb rips the gallery apart. A virtuoso piece of writing sees Theo wake, discover the old man as he patiently expires, escape and abscond with the painting of The Goldfinch at the old man’s urging and make his way crosstown, home, waiting on his mother (your reaction to the time in which Theo anxiously waits to hear from his mother will determine your reaction to large sections of the book, in which Theo procrastinates and attempts to make decisions and becomes the man he becomes).
Of course, Theo’s mother is dead and so begins Theo’s long journey, first in the company of the Barbours, a rich, high society family whose put upon son Theo befriended and, according to family legend, saved from bullies, and then later with his father, a man with drinking and gambling problems, who spirits Theo away to Vegas, where he shares a place with a brassy woman called Xandra. Throughout this long period, this period of years, Theo’s place in the world is insecure, fraught, the theft of the painting solidifying, moving from something he is able to explain, with time, to something less quantifiable (he acknowledges the crime of it, and works to try and keep the painting safe, and yet, at the same time, it comes to be the last tenuous hold he has on his mother). There are long periods of inertia, Theo is a Hamlet, given to distracting himself with whatever drink and pharmaceuticals come to hand, his friendship with a Ukrainian boy called Boris laying the foundations for problems that he continues to battle with in his adult life. Theo also becomes friends with a man called Hobie, a gentle furniture restorer, after the old man who does in the gallery gives him a ring to return. It is to this friendship, and the access that the friendship gives him to the girl he saw in the gallery, Pippa – other commentators have pointed out that her name is an amalgam of Pip and Estella from Great Expectations and the relationship between Theo and Pippa certainly rings with Dickens but Tartt has it move in unexpected directions, refuting resolution as well as Dickens did but retaining a sharp, contemporary flavour, a grown up refusal to assimilate easy answers.
A second tragedy involving his father propels Theo back to New York (and again, Theo’s cross country journey feels like a bravura piece of writing, the reader tightly held by both sympathy and compulsion, the vast number of pages in the book acting as a question – where will she take us, what else does she have in store for Theo?) where he reunites with Hobie and moves gradually into adult life. His perverted moral compass now set, however, it is here that Theo begins to embark upon more criminal activity and it is at this point, having been in Theo’s company for so long, that Tartt’s skills really begin to bear fruit. Like a Tony Soprano or a Walter White, we read about Theo’s activity (which is nothing on a par with Soprano or White but which is nevertheless a cruel betrayal of the person who has looked after him with the most genuine and open of hearts) and we understand, to a point; we are sympathetic because we have remained in such close contact with him. The painting remains, a ‘Tell Tale Heart’ known only to Theo, even as he fights off blackmail attempts and becomes involved with a young woman (his love for her a soft echo of the more painful feelings he has for Pippa) and Raskolnikoff-like, battles guilt and ill-health and drug problems (if you were looking a tagline for The Goldfinch you could do worse than create a mash-up of Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations, Eggers-like, Great Crime and Expectations of Punishment – and also it is interesting the line you can draw from The Secret History through to The Goldfinch, Tartt’s interests and obsessions as habitual as Flannery O’Connor’s). The novel’s darkest sections take place in the midst of ‘lurid, visionary frenzy’,
‘sometimes even a bad movie or a gruesome dinner party cold trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen, desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, my mother dead on a marble floor, stop it stop it, muttering aloud to myself in elevators, in cabs, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had – more than once – driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happen to have on hand’.
A trick played by Boris leads Theo to Amsterdam and the skein of the book, in which Theo has battled with his sense of being dead or almost dead or long dead, blooms into an extended downward spiral, spiked with fever, caught out by various warring factions and forced to act in a way that sends him skittering and teetering towards a climax in which the readers fears and suspects that all cannot possibly end well for anyone concerned (although, again, it should be said that Tartt manages the climax as well as Vince Gilligan and his team managed the climax of Breaking Bad – The Goldfinch is enormously satisfying in almost every aspect). But even the resolution of the action is not the end and Tartt treats us to a consideration, refracted through Theo, of what everything we have read has meant. In lesser hands, this would feel torturous – here is what this all means. Why did Fabritius paint The Goldfinch? What does this mean to the events of Theo’s life? There are answers. Some – such as ‘Life is short’ – are blunt and truthful; others – how art can teach us, how beautiful things can help us tolerate the awfulness of our short span on this Earth,
‘if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright immutable part in that immortality. It exists and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers’.
Writing about the book like this makes me want to start at the very start and read the book afresh. Not only that, it makes me want to go back to the start of Tartt’s career and read The Secret History and The Little Friend over again. Up to this point I would have said that I was a fan. I was certainly looking forward to The Goldfinch from the moment I heard it was on the horizon. I was sad as I drew to the end but resolutely thrilled at the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. I am sad as I draw to the end of this review because I could go on and on talking about it (you want to hear me when I get going about Peter Kemp and his ridiculous assertion in the Times that this book is a ‘turkey’ – the dick). This book has changed my feelings significantly however. I am now what you might call a devotee. I could become fanatical. Instead I’ll shut up. Roll on the early 2020s and whatever she chooses to share with us next.
Any Cop?: Head and shoulders the best novel of 2013.