The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature.’ So said James Wood, reviewing Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in the The New Yorker. The New Yorker can sometimes be a little up itself. The novel has been called Dickensian – primarily, I suspect, because it is so long. But there is certainly something of Great Expectations‘ spirit in the way that 13-year old Theo Decker ends up with the kindly furniture restorer Hobie in his downtown New York antique shop. And characters like Boris, who attacks life with his own wild relish, or the wispy Pippa are the sort you can imagine (in their 19th century, anglicised forms) popping up in The Old Little Dorrit Shop. Las Vegas intrudes into The Goldfinch at a crucial time, its harsh, brilliant, desert light shining on the narrative. Tartt describes the eye-squinting environment well, providing a bright, empty counterpoint to the rest of the novel which is largely set either in a New York of shadowy, wealthy apartments where not a thing is out of place and feelings are kept well under control – or in an alien, unsettling Amsterdam. In fact, the book begins with our twentysomething hero and narrator, Theo, in an Amsterdam hotel room in some kind of fix. Before long we learn how he survived the terrorist bomb explosion at an art gallery which killed his mother and thus shaped his life. A 17th century masterpiece, The Goldfinch, comes into his possession and provides a private anchor for the drift of his orphaned existence. Critics have complained that the book is so readable, which seems a little odd. Admittedly there’s a lot to get through and some of it, true, does have a somewhat…unlikely quality to it. Perhaps the best way to look at The Goldfinch is as a kind of fairy tale, set within its own bubble. But Tartt’s achievement is not so much maintaining her readers’ interest over these 771 pages – although she does that – rather, it is maintaining her own interest in the story over the 11 years it took to write which strikes one as particularly heroic. All those coffee breaks and time looking out of the window has been very well spent.

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