Like everyone else in the English speaking world, I decided to pack ‘The Goldfinch’ into an already-full suitcase as compulsory holiday reading. Yes it is heavy, and took up most of my ‘take presents home’ space, but there are some things that are ordained. Also, while it is true that the point of reading is that you can use it to escape across time and space and all places are equal, there are times that some are more equal than others. I was going to New York and I was going to read Donna Tartt’s New York-based novel. Simple as that.
Firstly, I don’t want to over-state the length of this latest book by the mistress of the doorstop novel, but it important. At nearly 800 pages ‘The Goldfinch is simply in a different league to most modern novels and I found myself having to adjust my reading accordingly. Things don’t happen quickly. When there is suspense, it builds at a creeping, stealthy pace that is simply not possible in shorter books. When characters are introduced, details accumulate over pages rather than paragraphs. Although a resolutely modern novel, Tartt has learned her craft from the classics of European literature and ‘The Goldfinch’ should be read like a Victorian novel (which were often serialised and supposed leisurely reading habits over many a long evening).
My complaint about ‘The Little Friend’, Tartt’s previous novel, had been that it felt more like individual vignettes than a coherent, well-structured whole. It was a joy to find that, in ‘The Goldfinch’, she’d gone back to the kind of tight thriller writing that made ‘The Secret History’ so compelling. Following a childhood tragedy, the hero, Theo Decker, takes comfort in Carel Fabritius’s picture of a chained bird. Accompanying him through his troubled adolescence the painting ultimately takes him deep into a moral and criminal underworld. I don’t want to give the plot away, but the twists and turns honestly had me laughing with satisfaction. Providing a counterpoint to the thriller plot line plot line, the traumas faced by the characters, and the sensitive detail with which they were presented, show Tartt at her best.
In a wider sense, this is a book about America, it’s relationship with the past and with culture, and the difficulty of believing in the American Dream in a post 9/11 world. More specifically however it is a New York novel, traversing the city’s geography and stratified society. It was perfect for my holiday reading and I am confident it will stand up equally well to re-reading in any location on earth.