Friday, 6 December 2013

The Goldfinch and The Luminaries: what happened next

The Goldfinch, for me, was one of those rare novels where my judgement of it utterly changed after reading the second half. Although, like any novel this length, it is an imperfect beast, and, not like all novels this length, it could do with losing a hundred pages or so from its first half, I think it was still one of the best books I've read this year. It was an inspired choice by the publishers to include a decent, if small, reproduction of the painting at the beginning of the text. As I was reading, I kept returning to Fabritius's bird and finding new meaning in it, although I have not seen the original, and by the end of the novel, I could almost see the goldfinch taking flight, catching its foot against the chain, circling back down, then beginning again. This novel does not simply become much more gripping as Theo attains adulthood and becomes mixed up in the murky world of crooked antiques dealing and art theft; it becomes much more resonant, as the many sins of Theo's adolescence continue to haunt him. As he says of the goldfinch near the end of the novel, 'what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery…' The two tokens that remain from the moments before Theo's mother's death, the painting itself and the red-haired girl, Pippa, haunt, torture and comfort him throughout the novel, even though he might not have given either of them a second glance if not for the explosion. At the end of the novel, Theo puts forward his thesis that life is an inevitable misery from which we can nevertheless glean some joy; but I couldn't help worrying at the edges of what, for me, is a much more tragic reading, that this is true but only for some of us, and that Theo is a chained bird. Although it seems likely that his mother's death was indeed the catalyst for everything that followed, I found myself remembering as I finished this novel that he and his mother had been off to a disciplinary meeting due to Theo's hanging around with the wrong crowd before the explosion happened, and that perhaps he was doomed from the start, although not doomed to fly and fall in precisely the same way. Tartt paints on a huge canvas, and this novel will certainly be worth re-reading.

My opinion of The Luminaries, on the other hand, has remained as high as it was when I discussed the first half of the book. The thing I find particularly impressive is, ironically, how it is such a flawed mess of a text in some ways - the reader struggles to keep track of the huge cast of characters and the plot is so complex that Catton herself realises the necessity of frequent recapping. And yet, there is something magnetic about it. I've made no secret of the fact that I prefer big, ambitious, untidy novels to perfectly executed, self-contained novellas, and this is one of the reasons why. The Luminaries is a novel that you feel you can really get inside, explore, and re-read over and over again; the tightly-interwoven plot is not a turn-off, but a challenge. It takes great skill to pull such a thing off without completely alienating the reader, and although I dismissed comparisons to Wilkie Collins earlier, there is something of The Moonstone about the solution to Catton's mystery. However, Catton also has what The Moonstone - not my favourite Collins novel - lacks; a fully-rounded cast who never fall into cipher or cliche.  (I still remember how annoying I found the caricature of Miss Clack and the idealised Rachel Verinder.) I particularly appreciated how, despite the range of narrators, the central cast are only ever seen through the eyes of others. Anna Wetherell is a particularly fascinating subject to watch in this way; as new revelations come to light, her character alters, until she finally does get to speak for herself late in the novel. Catton also handles a sub-current of the supernatural with immense style, leaving enough room for doubt but enough hints to send a shiver up one's spine. Superb storytelling and a worthy winner of the Booker. (And thank God it wasn't Harvest or The Testament of Mary, is what I say.) 

See this post for the first half of my review of The Goldfinch and this post for the first half of my review of The Luminaries.             

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