Premise: Theo Decker, a 13 year old boy, survives a terrorist bombing whilst visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mother dies in the explosion and, in the turmoil of his escape, Theo takes a painting from the rubble. It is “The Goldfinch”. For many years, he keeps the painting hidden away amongst his possessions as he moves from place to place. His life is peppered with small triumphs and devastating blows. He becomes hooked on drugs and alcohol at an early age. His education is frequently interrupted. And when he does find some sort of stability, he sabotages his own happiness. All the while, “The Goldfinch” is still hidden away in a suitably air-conditioned storage unit and Theo is increasingly wracked with anxiety and guilt.
The term “Dickensian” is often applied to modern day novels but rarely merited. However, I think that in the case of “The Goldfinch”, it is the right term to describe the book that Donna Tartt has created. It has shades of “Oliver Twist” in the quasi-orphan status of the protagonist whilst his friend, Boris, calls to mind aspects of the Artful Dodger or Fagin in his carefree, thieving way of life. The manner in which Theo’s life spirals out of control and is increasingly influenced by criminal aspects is reminiscent of the climactic scenes in “Great Expectations” whilst his unrequited love for a girl called Pippa recalls that between Pip and Estella. The exploration of relationships is as perceptive as anything in “Bleak House” or “Nicholas Nickleby”. The character’s names are playful in a manner that reflects Dickens’ naming conventions – especially Welton “Welty” Blackwell and James “Hobie” Hobart. The story is vast and sprawling in a way that conjures up Dickens’ style. And you could almost imagine reading the book in monthly instalments just like how Dickens’ books were published in his lifetime.
What is brilliant about this novel is its pacing. My paperback edition is 864 pages long but there is never a point where the story lags. It is intense where it needs to be and languorous where it suits. Sometimes, there is a rich intensity of detail whilst, at other times, the action is painted in broader brushstrokes. There are periods of stillness (most memorably the final pages of the book where Theo reflects on everything that has happened) that are really sublime. Woven into the plot, Tartt manages to explore the full range of human emotions. Love, loss, unhappiness, pleasure, anger, envy, guilt, shame and restlessness are all present and correct. Theo’s relationships are cleverly juxtaposed so that the way he adores his mother is contrasted with his unease towards his father and his sense of suffocation whilst living under the roof of a foster parent. The harmful nature of his relationship with Boris is compared with the way he self-destructs under the tutelage of the ever-patient “Hobie”. And once the plot and the characterisation have run their course, we are left with a subtle, lyrical ending that questions the relevance of it all. It is brilliantly done.
Other books connected to art: “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” (Tracy Chevalier), “An Artist of the Floating World” (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Other highly rated books by this author: “The Secret History”, “The Little Friend”