The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt — a review

Some months ago, a university lecturer in Toronto gained fleeting notoriety when he revealed that he refused to teach novels penned by female novelists, on the grounds that they were simply not as good as books by men. “I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” Professor David Gilmour said in an interview, provoking a firestorm of controversy. “What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. Real guy-guys.”
To which one can only respond: poor David Gilmour. Because although he might be guilty of sexism, he’s also missing out on some extraordinary books by women in recent times, the latest of which comes from the pen of Donna Tartt. The American author first found fame in the early 1990s, when she published The Secret History, a smartly captivating literary thriller that was eight years in the writing and sold more than five million copies worldwide. A dry spell followed, and then an uneven novel, 2002’s The Little Friend (revealingly, its working title was Tribulation). A sprawling suspense epic that contained much fine writing, it was hampered by the uneasy sense of an author who had many gifts, but lacked the driving force of a good story.
You’d have to feel sorry for the publishing house which shelled out a million dollars for it. The book they were really waiting on was this one, The Goldfinch, a near-800-page doorstopper which is an enthralling, dazzling delight and by some distance the best book I have read this year.
The title of the book refers to the painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died aged 32 in 1654, when the gunpowder arsenal in Delft exploded, turning sections of the city to ruins. That same year, Fabritius had painted The Goldfinch, a small but perfectly formed portrait of the pet bird, which is considered to be a masterpiece.
In the novel, The Goldfinch hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it proves to be the wire that threads through this masterfully penned tale, binding the pages and the characters together. ”The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like the odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment.” That’s the view of Theo Decker, the lead character-and narrator of the novel-whose troubled, peripatetic and mercurial life unspools before us in feverishly vivid, cinematic prose.
The story begins one day when Theo comes with his single mother to the Metropolitan Museum. With his mother having flitted off to view another painting, Theo is standing before The Goldfinch when a terrorist bomb explodes-and his delicate, elegant mother is killed in the blast, changing his life forever.
Much of this book is devoted to a subtle, but absolutely convincing, portrait of grief. Theo is just 13 years old when his entire world is snatched from him. His mother was special: caring, artsy and beloved by everyone. Her loss cannot be borne-New York is impossible without her; indeed, his whole life is impossible without her.
But Theo must continue, and he is an unusual fellow: deeply artistic, a scholarship kid, one who – although reeling from shock in the moments after the terrorist blast-still has the mental fortitude to obey a dying bystander’s instructions to grab The Goldfinch from the wall and save it. No one notices the small boy fleeing home with the small painting, and Theo’s clandestine ownership of The Goldfinch begins, wrapped in newspapers, hidden in suitcases, and increasingly the only constant in his life.
When the social workers step in, Theo gets shunted from home to home. He stays with the wealthy Barbours on Fifth Avenue, before his father (a treacherous figure) appears with dubious motives to bring him to Vegas, where Theo douses himself in alcohol alongside his charismatic new friend Boris, whose own father is a child-beater.
Late in the narrative, when Theo is an adult, Boris will offer up his interpretation of those blurry days. ”I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.” But for most of the book, we can only see through Theo’s eyes-and we feel deeply his alienation, his despair, his terror of becoming homeless and his desire to lose himself in the prescription drugs and illegal opiates he finds about his father’s house.
Theo is also his father’s child in more ways than we might expect. His morality code has been warped, and he behaves in ways we can understand, but not approve of. A murkiness rests in his depths, and will shape the book’s suspenseful closing movements.
Tartt draws her characters with a lively, finely tuned artistry, offering even minor characters Shakespearean-sized arcs. Theo’s closest ally in New York is his friend Hobie, an antiques furniture restorer-and subsequent teacher to Theo-who is described as ”haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink”. Hobie’s relationship with Theo will form an important axis in the book, as will that of another of his carers: Mrs Barbour, from a society family, and ”so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood”.
One of Tartt’s largest gifts to her reader is her exhilaratingly brilliant use of language. She is not self-consciously virtuoso in this regard-you won’t find yourself scrambling for the dictionary every two minutes. But she is athletically precise: horses ”blow and nicker”, rosewood has a ”flowery, amber-resin smell”, the city gets ”prinked up” for Christmas.
There’s comfort in her language; it’s a Dickensian world so well imagined that, like Goldilocks, you can see yourself eating their food, sitting in their chairs and enjoying their beds. Although the sheer length of the novel might seem like a stretch, by the 500-page mark I was trying to read The Goldfinch more slowly, to savour every drop of the honeyed prose. If you only buy one novel this year, make it this one; it is a magisterial triumph.

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