Friday, 29 November 2013

The Goldfinch, #1: a tale that goes on and on

NB. I have only managed to read half of this massive tome, so this post will cover the first half of the novel. I will discuss the second half next week when I also discuss the rest of The Luminaries by Eleanor Carron, another epic read.

I was fortunate enough to hear Donna Tartt speak about The Goldfinch at the Cambridge Union recently; but this was before I'd started the novel, and I was puzzled by her comments about what makes a novel 'dated.' As an historian, I've long been suspicious of this term; of course any novel is dated, because to remove all references to any historical period is virtually impossible, and often a thankless task. For example, one of the reasons I disliked Jim Crace's Harvest so much was because he seemed to be trying to capture a timeless rural England but managed only to convey a poorly researched picture of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century village, with some details that would never have been applicable to England at any point in its history. And as a reader, I actively prefer my novels 'dated', if by dated you mean 'uses historically accurate references.' I refuse to believe that readers are really so lazy or stupid that they will stop reading a book because they do not recognise a product name or pop group, and the reception of novels such as Kevin Maher's The Fields seems to bear this assertion out, as it has clearly been appreciated by many readers who did not experience a 1980s childhood in Dublin. For these reasons, I was surprised to hear Tartt say that she had carefully gone through The Goldfinch to strip it of contemporary references, and one of the reasons she felt that The Secret History is still enduringly popular is because it is not dated. Immediately, I thought that The Secret History is a dated novel - and none the worse for it - and indeed, that much of the power of Tartt's writing lies in an evocation of a particular time and place, as in her misunderstood and in my opinion, greatest novel, The Little Friend. Fortunately, The Goldfinch is no exception. From references to iPods to DVDs to mobiles, it is firmly placed in the twenty-first century, and indeed I think we are meant to view Theo's adulthood as taking place in the future, his theft of the painting 'The Goldfinch' still to come.

The novel opens with an utterly gripping set-piece of the kind Tartt writes so well. The adult Theo, holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam that he cannot leave, recalls his mother's death in an explosion at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was thirteen. Because we don't know the exact details of her death at first, we retrace Theo's steps through that day with a growing sense of dread; is it the missed taxi or the forgotten umbrella that sealed her fate? Would things have been different if Theo had been less interested in the attractive red-haired girl in the gallery and more interested in the exhibition? The explosion itself parallels the destruction of much of Carel Fabritius's work after his studio was destroyed in Delft in 1654; 'The Goldfinch' was one of only about a dozen paintings to survive. In this alternative reality, it survives a second explosion, only to be appropriated by Theo and to remain his constant companion as he is rocketed to some friends of his mother's, to live with his father in Las Vegas, and then back to New York again, where he ends up with the guardian of the red-haired girl, a furniture restorer called Hobie.

Even a brief summary of the first half of the plot indicates how busy a novel The Goldfinch is. Ironically, it is only in the moments before the explosion that we get a chance to stop and breathe. After that, Tartt relentlessly narrates Theo's story, and although individual scenes are carefully delineated, the overall effect is of a sweeping narrative that presses us forward to no apparent purpose. Tartt's skill is fully on display here; characterisation is wonderful, setting vivid, and sentence by sentence, the novel is beautifully-written. However, at the moment, I feel as if there is no wider significance to the story I am being told. Readers complained that The Little Friend was plotless, but for me, it was more than redeemed by its series of skilful set-pieces, and The Secret History obviously possessed a thriller-esque narrative. Although a form of plot seems to be emerging, as Theo worries if the painting will be discovered, I'm wondering whether the novel can redeem itself enough in its second half to make up for the meandering nature of its first. A deceptively easy read, it is in many ways the polar opposite of the equally lengthy The Luminaries; a novel that requires close attention but repays the reader handsomely, and which is perhaps structured almost too rigidly. Next week, I will discuss how both these novels pan out in their final three hundred or so pages.

Update: see this post for the second half of my review of The Goldfinch.

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