Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, published in 1992 when she was still in her 20s, was not only an instant bestseller but also immediately a cult book. Nearly all those who read it then, and those who come to it now at the right age to be wholly engaged in the destiny of a group of students, hold it dear as a memorable, perhaps even formative, experience in their own lives.
by DONNA TARTT
Little, Brown, 784pp, £20
The ten-year delay before the appearance of her second novel inevitably raised enormous expectations. The Little Friend (2002), however, about a girl in Mississippi, obsessed by the death of her brother, hanged at nine, only partially fulfilled them, many readers finding the heroine dislikeable and the climax preposterous.
Now here at last is Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch, a huge endeavour, 771 pages of pretty small type. It’s sometimes overwritten and a little bit formless. It could have been shorter. It’s not perfect. But it’s a lovely book.
As it opens, the hero, Theo, is 27, ill and hiding out in a hotel room in Amsterdam, dreaming of his adored mother. “Things would have turned out better if she had lived,” he says simply. “As it was, she died when I was a kid…”
So he tells us the story, taking us back to when he was 13, living alone with her in New York, his alcoholic father having skedaddled. One April day, they went together to an exhibition of Northern Masterworks of the Golden Age at the Met and saw there the miniature masterpiece The Goldfinch of 1653 by Carel Fabritius, one of the few of his paintings to survive the artist’s death a year later in the great explosion at Delft, as Theo’s mother explains to him. Meanwhile, Theo is eyeing up a skinny, sharp-faced, red-haired girl also looking at the pictures, with an elderly companion. Then, in a shocking coup de théâtre, a suitcase bomb goes off in the museum itself.
In the wreckage, dazed, Theo talks to the girl’s dying companion, who urges him to take the precious picture and gives him a heavy gold ring. Theo escapes from the scene, his life forever altered. He has lost his mother and thus is effectively orphaned (the novel plays on both Great Expectations and Harry Potter as fellow orphan stories).The rest of the novel traces Theo’s progress towards that hotel room in Amsterdam many years later. He is taken in initially by an aristocratic but damaged family, the Barbours, who live on Park Avenue.
The ring takes him to the girl, Pippa, the love of his life henceforth, who has also survived, albeit more severely injured than him, and her guardian, a gentle, kindly antique restorer called Hobie, an enchanting man, who becomes a major influence on his life and his understanding of art. And Theo also still has the stolen picture, a link to his mother and the world of beauty, which he cannot bring himself to relinquish.
The central scenes of The Goldfinch are set in Las Vegas, where Theo goes to live with his rackety father and his drug-dealer girlfriend. Here at school he meets his greatest friend, Boris, a crazy Ukrainian, who calls him Potter, with whom he hangs out, drinks, takes drugs and grows up. Boris is a great creation – “the whole impulsive mess of him: gloomy, reckless, hot-tempered, appallingly thoughtless. Boris pale and pasty, with his shoplifted apples and his Russian-language novels, gnawed-down fingernails and shoelaces dragging in the dust. Boris – budding alcoholic, fluent curser in four languages…”
Boris is like one of the great characters in Dickens – you can’t get enough of him. So it’s a happy discovery that, even after Theo’s return to New York, Hobie and the Barbours, Boris eventually comes back to play a central role in his life with much more of his marvellous fractured English.
Very few modern novelists write character-driven fiction any more: Tartt is a rare exception. Even minor characters (a Dickensian lawyer called Mr Bracegirdle, a courtly Jewish enforcer called Mr Silver) shine with life.
On the minus side, it means the novel is not really driven by plot, despite Tartt attempting a thrillerish section towards the end, as gangsters compete for possession of the picture. But no matter. The sentence by sentence pleasure of the book provides impetus enough. Tartt really loves description – of people, of places, of beautiful objects – and she lays on the words like a painter, until the writing becomes beautiful itself. That’s her passion.
Since his mother’s death – all three of Tartt’s novels have opened with a death foretold – Theo has been death-centred himself, as Boris tells him when they meet as adults. “Sure – I did plenty of stupid things. Stupider than you! But me … I was trying to have fun and be happy. You wanted to be dead. It’s different.”
The Goldfinch is ultimately about the place of beauty in the face of mortality, a theme addressed explicitly in the closing pages where Theo owns up to himself about his nature, and concludes that there is no truth beyond illusion – just a middle zone between reality and subjectivity, “a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And – I would argue as well – all love.”
The Goldfinch is a novel of the highest literary ambition and dedication. Not to be missed. Eligible for the Man Booker next year, too.