I suppose you’ll want to know what it’s about for starters. Well, I resisted learning almost anything about the contents of The Goldfinch (published in October 2013) before I started it, and I’m mightily glad I did, because this is one of those craftily plotted novels that benefits from a no-spoilers approach. So feel free to ignore the rest of this paragraph if you want to maximise the suspense. Opening with a brief flash forward to an Amsterdam hotel room at Christmas, twenty-something Theo Decker recounts the events that followed a visit to an art exhibition with his mother in their native New York fourteen years ago. On that day, a bomb exploded, leaving Mother dead and Theo in possession of a priceless Dutch masterpiece, the titular painting of an exotic pet bird chained to its perch.
The plot, spanning more than a decade and a couple of continents, is far more expansive than either of Tartt’s other novels, and all the better for it. Taking in East Coast high society, Midwestern middleclass excess and the dregs of the prescription drug trade, it’s grimy, gritty and gripping. A vast cast of friends and foes surrounds Theo; a few are loveable, some are downright hateful, many are both. But the mercurial characters and compelling storyline are never at the expense of the prose – unlike plenty of virtually screenplay-like novels I’ve read of late (some from the Young Adult section admittedly). You know when you’re reading a really good book and every so often you have to stop and reread a sentence or a few words because they’re so heart-stoppingly exquisite? (I find it usually happens with Ian McEwan). Well, that happens on practically every double page with The Goldfinch, such is Tartt’s ability to find fresh and cunning ways to describe sunshine (‘harpstrings of light’) or tinittus (‘an ugly white roar’) or an addict gone cold turkey (‘a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavour since the dawn of time.’)
Sounds like one depressing read doesn’t it? But it’s not. Frankly, I felt withdrawal symptoms after I’d finished this book, such was its grip on my consciousness. A word of warning though: it is long. Nearly 800 pages long. I got through it in three weeks of hour-long train commutes (I actually started to get excited about the blissful uniterrupted reading time my pre-dawn train allowed), but my sister Ruth plowed through it in a week over the Christmas holidays. Ruth said she also felt that sense of sadness when it was all over, and the appearance of The Goldfinch on many a news outlet’s end-of-year best of list reassures me I’m not way off with my enthusiastic assessement here.
It also helps that The Goldfinch represents a monumental return to form for Donna Tartt. The American novelist’s debut, The Secret History, was a critically-lauded chart-topper when it was published in 1992. The enthralling story of a death at a New England college, it became my favourite ever book when I read it in the late nineties, but the follow-up, 2002’s The Little Friend, was a severe disappointment and a relative critical flop, so dull I struggle to recall what it was even about. Maybe something to do with redneck drug dealers in the Deep South? It all seemed very alien to me.
The setting of The Goldfinch, on the other hand, is part of what sent it fluttering to the top of my of my recreational reading hall of fame. I went to school in Holland, just outside The Hague, where parents still live, and I go back every Christmas. So when I read snippets of Dutch in the novel’s opening chapter I felt a fizz of nostalgia. Even better, it turns out that the title’s pivotal painting really exists. Dutch painter Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch is currently on loan to the Frick museum in New York, but will return to its usual home in June, just down the road from where I’m writing this, in The Hague’s Mauritshuis Museum. I intend to visit when I’m back next Christmas, to see if I feel what Theo Decker did when he clapped eyes on the captive bird: ‘a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever.’ Let’s hope he hasn’t overhyped it.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is published by Little, Brown.