Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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New York in 1746 is a small town of 7,000 people, perched at the end of Manahatta Island, a place which  English and Dutch influences vie: the Bowery is still the Bouwerij, Brooklyn is still Breuckelen. Here a young Englishman, Mr. Smith, arrives bearing a promissory note for £1,000 – an impossible sum of money. He is either rich beyond imagining, or a fraud. New York’s high society is agog. 18th century writers such as Henry Fielding got their protagonists into scrape after scrape as they stumbled their way through picaresque adventuring – and in Golden Hill, Smith is rescued from a mob, feted throughout town, thrown in jail, acts in a play, falls in love, fights a duel and so on. Every so often you read a book which is so…pound-for-pound entertaining that you wonder why everyone doesn’t just pull their socks up and write like this. Golden Hill is one such novel, with Francis Spufford providing little firework displays on virtually every page, bearing you aloft on easy charm. How about this, when the local – very powerful – judge De Lancey removes his wig in a moment of informality: ‘The sight of his naked head was no more reassuring than the sight of a tiger settling in comfort in its lair.’ There was also a pleasing meta-fictional element to many narratives of the time and Spufford taps into this, as when he describes Smith’s tense, loaded game of cards with the same judge. The reader needs ‘a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet, which shall therefore be explained’. But Spufford/the author spends too long doing it: ‘Wait – alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun. We are out of time, with little enlightenment secured.’ But at least this means we – the readers – are now as confused as Mr. Smith, who is also unsure of the rules, and therefore this is ‘to be sure, a kind of gain in understanding’. It is pure Tristram Shandy. Whether he is duping people or not Smith is, as it turns out, in New York to do some very serious business indeed. It is a fast, clever, funny story.

 

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