The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Published by Little Brown: €20.50 Kindle:€8.42.
Published in The Irish Examiner, 14th December, 2013
It has been eleven years since the American novelist Donna Tartt produced a book. And there were ten years between her ground breaking debut, The Secret History and her second, The Little Friend. So expectation was high, when her new doorstopper, The Goldfinch was finally published.
When it comes to reviews, I have a prejudice against such massive books, and this one is just short of 800 pages, but I was immediately subsumed into Tartt’s world, and knew that I was in for a treat. And so it proved.
The narrator, thirteen year old Theo Decker has been suspended from school. This has irritated his mother, who is a nervous beauty. To kill time before a meeting at the school, she takes her son to an art gallery, and shows him her favourite painting, The Goldfinch. He is more interested in a girl his own age, who is with, he presumes, her grandfather.
When an explosion rips through the gallery, Theo’s mother is killed, and he finds himself close to the old man, who is dying. They talk, and the man hands him a ring, making him promise to visit an address.
Theo hides out in his apartment until social workers place him with a school friend’s family in Fifth Avenue. Feeling adrift; pining for his mother, he visits the address given to him by the dying man, and meets an antique dealer who will prove pivotal in his life. The girl is there too. Pippa was badly injured, but there’s a spark between the two near orphans.
So far, so very Dickens. And there are references throughout the novel to that master of literature. Yet this is, very much a great American novel. Huge in scope; it’s a literary work, but is also a story of survival after a terrorist attack, and of the struggle to overcome the odds. It’s a love story, and it’s a thriller, which explores the criminal side of the art world.
Tartt sends her hero to his estranged, dissolute father in Las Vegas, where he befriends the Russian Boris, and becomes acquainted with drink and drugs. After his father’s death he absconds back to New York, and is reunited with Hobie, the antique dealer. He also becomes enmeshed once more with his erstwhile substitute family who have suffered a tragedy of their own.
There’s no doubt that Theo’s brains are beneficial to him. But lacking supervision, he is in many ways too clever, and he gets caught up in dodgy schemes that lead him into danger. When Boris resurfaces and a devastating secret is revealed, the novel spirals into high drama, and the action races away. The violent section in Amsterdam seemed unbelievable, but Tartt then reins her characters in, and leaves us with, if not total redemption, then with a sense that Theo’s future is assured.
With an obvious nod to nine eleven, this is a classic in the making. The pacing is beautifully judged throughout. Theo is an unreliable narrator, and not just because he is so out of it at times, on drink or drugs that he doesn’t remember some of the action. But when, a few hundred pages later a missing nugget is revealed, it all makes the most perfect sense.
Plot twists are so timely, that there isn’t a moment when the reader isn’t turning the pages, anxious to know what will happen next. Yet the picture of The Goldfinch, which is the talisman at the centre of the story, takes a very subsidiary role until the frenetic final section.
It’s the characters who really make this book so special. Theo’s mother did a good job. Her son is polite and at ease with adults, so he is liked, and given a chance. Boris has the brains, but is damaged and dangerous. It would be easy to lose sympathy with him, had Tartt not illuminated his sensitive side.
She does this through a dog. Theo’s father left his mother for the whacky Xandra. And she owns, and neglects a tiny timid dog. Theo’s pity for Popper turns to affection, but Boris quickly who becomes the dog’s steadfast champion.
Popper is useful in revealing the subsidiary characters too. The taxi driver who is taking the runaway Theo to the airport, advises him to take a bus instead – but to hide the dog, as they are not allowed on board. And he grills the boy, on how to keep the dog hidden in a bag.
“Don’t keep looking at the bag like that. Anywhere but the bag. The scenery, your shoelace.” As Theo remarks, they didn’t call the cab Lucky Cab for nothing.
The reader knows, throughout the novel, that Theo’s grief impacts on his entire life. Yet much of his anguish is only hinted at. It’s not until he’s back in New York dealing with a worsening drug problem, that we learn quite what effect the bomb has had on him.
“The suddenness of the explosion had never left me. I was always looking for something to happen, always expecting it out of the corner of my eye, certain configurations of people in public places could trigger it, a wartime urgency, someone cutting in front of me the wrong way or walking too fast at a particular angle was enough to throw me into tachycardia and trip-hammer panic.”
Equally we’re aware from the start that Theo loves the tiny, red haired Pippa. But the force of his adoration isn’t made clear until the closing chapters. Will their joint tragedy draw them together, or push them apart?
2013 had been an amazing year for novels. I was already spoilt for choice for my novel of the year. But this one is so brilliant; so finely tuned and astute, that it makes everything else seem insubstantial. The sublime writing, superb plot timing and mesmerising characters make this novel stay in the mind long after the last page has been read. I adored it.
(This review is available on the Irish Examiner site, but I wasn't happy with the sub-editor, who actually tempered my praise of the book.)
© Sue Leonard 2013