The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

 

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Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.

The Goldfinch is not the kind of novel I would typically read on holiday. I balk at novels that hit the 1,000 page mark (which this doesn’t: 864) and my scepticism towards a book only increases for each 100 pages that goes over 400. I don’t like to leave a novel unfinished, and I don’t want to start one of that size that I’m not sure I’m going to like. Life’s too short for bad long books.

But read it I did, and I am so glad to have done so!

We were on holiday in France, about a week into our break and I was happily ploughing through my book collection. Helen had read The Goldfinch just a few days before me and told me I absolutely had to break with my plans and read it. Since she’s usually pretty spot on with her recommendations and has a great knack for knowing whether or not I will enjoy a novel, I agreed. And to be honest, the page count didn’t put me off as much as it might have done, because I’d already observed the greedy way in which Helen had been gripped by the story and I could tell that it was going to be a genuine page turner, not a desperate ‘get to the end at any cost’, page turner.

Every time I put it down at a chapter break, I’d hear the thud of Helen’s book on the table – dropped mid-sentence – and the question “so…?”

We discussed it multiple times a day; over meals, by the pool, on walks around the lake, and when I’d finally finished it on day three we discussed it for hours into the evening, accompanied by good French wine. I can’t remember the last novel I’ve read that I so wanted to talk about with someone else. Our discussions ranged through everything from the major themes, to arguments about how to interpret incidental details, to what the characters would look like and who should play them in a film adaptation, and plenty of discussion about the craft of writing itself.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2014, and is an epic novel, in the true sense of ‘epic’. It spans continents and decades, and yet manages to combine a grand sweeping narrative with incredible attention to detail. There are sections that are meticulously detailed and spend what-seems-like-an-age establishing and developing essentials about the characters. When it could feel tempting to race on with the story, the author resists the urge and slows you down to make sure you’ve taken in every last detail you’re going to need to make sense of the whole. The only one time I found this tedious was in Vegas, when I think Theo and Boris got drunk, punched each other and passed out half a dozen times too many! That definitely could have been shorter.

I found it refreshing to read a novel of this sort of scope and scale that was set right now. The author never nails down a date for when the events took place, and largely manages to keep things only vaguely dateable – the iPod contents give little away, since it’s mainly classical, Beatles and Nirvana; iPhones locate it in a particular time frame; and a solitary reference to Facebook (which I felt was a cheap mistake, and which Helen and I disagreed about for quite some time) helps you to place it roughly, but not precisely. The atmosphere around the catastrophe when Theo is thirteen has a definite post 9-11 feel (confirmed by one al qaeda reference) so if we were to place that in say 2003, that would set the bulk of Theo’s adult life right now, culminating around 2017.

It’s impossible, really, to sum up what The Goldfinch is about without either giving too much away, or needing to explain too much about the characters, since so much of the novel is driven by characterisation, and there are countless interwoven themes. Themes like idolatry, freedom, chance, fate, love, secrecy and memory. Drug taking is a regular tool for exploring (or escaping) these themes, and also for moving the story on in unexpected – if also strangely predictable – ways. Not that the story is predictable at all (and there is one heck of a twist that completely knocked me sideways!!) but there are whole chunks where you read on with a heavy sense of futility, spotting the foolishness of a decision way before the characters do, even if you can’t fully conceive where it will eventually take them.

The multitude of themes bounce off each other, creating so many layers and raising so many questions, the answers to some of which I’m still not sure about. The quasi-religio-philosophical ending seems to focus mainly on the subjects of purpose and chance (the latter of which also happens to be the first name of a central character – coincidence?) drawing a surprising link between Theo’s washed out, gambling-addicted loser dad and the story’s climax in a lonely Dutch hotel room. What hath Vegas to do with Amsterdam? Much, it would appear…

But despite all the emphasis on fate, chance and the suchlike, this is not a blindly fatalistic, patternless book. What’s striking is just how much of Theo’s life is shaped by the controlling choices of others, those who are temporarily put in authority over him and those who, by his poor decisions, he gives more authority to than he ought. At various junctures Theo’s life is set on a particular course by the instruction or action of another, and you’re left wondering whether or not that individual ever saw the full implications of their instructions? The old man Welty at the scene of the accident being a prime example.

The novel does cause you to consider whether there might be a controlling authority figure behind the story; a personal or impersonal weaver of patterns who/which has the ability to work all things towards an ultimate goal. And whilst religion doesn’t play a front-and-centre role in the novel, its presence is always bubbling away just under the surface, breaking through more towards the story’s conclusion.

There’s so much I’d like to say, so many observations I’d like to draw out, but doing so would ruin the book for you. So my suggestion is this; get yourself a copy, read it, then we can talk sometime… for as many hours as you have to spare, and ideally with another glass of good French wine.

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