13 February 2014

Book Review: The Goldfinch

Beautiful Things

My review of Donna Tartt's recent novel, published in the Asian Age

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown. Great Britain, 2013.
Distributed in India by Hachette Books, Rs. 799.
It is tempting to describe The Goldfinch as a coming-of-age tale. Several reviewers have already made the comparisons to Charles Dickens, and it is true that the motherless Theo Decker, with his dramatic childhood and ensuing entanglement with a cast of unlikely characters, does bring to mind Dickens’ many orphaned boys in memorable urban milieus: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations.

And like Donna Tartt’s equally celebrated first novel, The Secret History, The Goldfinch is a haunting recreation of adolescence, capturing the feel of those years in all their terrible awkwardness and fierce emotion.

But it is also a thrillingly suspenseful narrative, keeping us glued to the page by being consistently eventful — without ever playing guessing games. As in The Secret History, where the fact that a murder has been committed is revealed to us right at the start, Tartt is less interested in surprising us than in having us wait anxiously for what we know is going to happen. The Goldfinch opens with the 27-year-old Theo shut away in an Amsterdam hotel, poring over Dutch newspapers for news of a “crime scene”. What that crime is we will have to wait several hundred pages to find out. But having drawn us into the paranoid present of Theo Decker, Tartt now propels us swiftly and expertly into his past, via his most powerful memory: the death of his mother in a freakish explosion in a museum in New York 14 years ago.

The narrative is sweeping in its geographical scope, transporting Theo — and us — from a genteel (if not always gentle) New York world to a wildly dysfunctional Las Vegas, and back again. But what makes The Goldfinch such a satisfyingly grand tour of contemporary America is that it gleams with beautifully wrought detail. Much of that loving attention is devoted to Manhattan, and this book is a particular pleasure to read for anyone who’s known any of the specific worlds Tartt evokes. The artistic messiness of the Deckers’ place, with its flea-market brass bed and Chinese lamps and hyacinths from the Korean market, is as wholly New York as the gloomy opulence of the Barbours’ huge Park Avenue apartment (“it was never quite night there, or exactly day”) where Theo ends up living for some time after his mother’s death.

In the end, though, relationships are not the real anchors of this book. Powerful as they feel to him, Theo’s strongest attachments are directed towards people who don’t quite exist — the memory of his mother, the memory of Boris, and a girl called Pippa whom he imagines as the love of his life. What offers him something like stability are objects. “People die, sure. But it’s so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things,” says Theo’s mother to him minutes before her death. “Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle.”

At one level, Theo’s journey — tied as it is to the painting from which the book draws its name — is imbued with the belief that caring for beautiful things “connect(s) you to some larger beauty” — and yet, Tartt seems to suggest sadly, even that love can be a treacherous thing.

Through all of Theo’s early upheavals, we get a powerful sense of how he is cushioned by his upper-middle-class experience of the city: buildings made homely by friendly doormen, a school life where the teachers may seem annoying and prying but they're really on his side, a temporary home in which Mrs Barbour’s effortless hauteur successfully shields him from the worse aspects of the New York bureaucracy and the press. But it is in Hobie’s (profoundly Dickensian) basement in the West Village, crowded with antique objects in various ages and stages of repair, that the unsettled 13-year-old finds comfort. 

The refuge is temporary. Theo’s untraceable father suddenly appears, and when Theo moves in with him and his tanned casino hostess girlfriend Xandra, Tartt must abandon the familiar urbanity of the East Coast for the great glittering unknown of Las Vegas. She succeeds in capturing the feeling of crazed alterity through Theo’s total dislocation, producing a startlingly vivid account of how different the two places feel — the non-stop air-conditioning, the endless glare, the sky “a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there”. If Theo’s khakis and white Oxford shirts make him stick out like a sore thumb amid his tank-top and flipflop-clad new schoolmates, his dad’s white sports coat and sunglasses — so over-the-top when in New York — begin to make sense in the desert heat. But Tartt’s real genius here lies in marrying the New Yorker’s befuddlement at Vegas’ aimless sprawl with Theo’s personal sense of being at a loss. “Carnival colors, giant clown heads and XXX signs: the strangeness exhilarated me, and also frightened me a little. In New York, everything reminded me of my mother — every taxi, every street corner, every cloud that passed over the sun — but out in this hot mineral emptiness, it was as if she had never existed…”

If Theo’s New York is haunted by his mother, his life in Vegas quickly comes to be dominated by the sole friend he makes there. The gloomy, madly impulsive Boris, “budding alcoholic, fluent curser in four languages”, becomes the manic pivot of a new life filled with reckless shoplifting, endless vodka and attempts to score drugs. Tartt catches perfectly the all-or-nothing quality of adolescent friendship, the sort where you spend every waking hour together, so attuned to each other that a raised eyebrow is enough to tip the other person over into hysterics, and the book’s sections on Theo and Boris are among its most unguarded — and unforgettable.

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