You might remember me saying a while back – with unalloyed glee – how glad I was to hear that the majestic Donna Tartt had a new book coming out, and how excited I was to read it. You might remember me spouting on about how much I loved her work, and how every word that dripped from Tartt’s golden-nibbed pen of genius was a masterpiece.
Well. I still think so. Donna Tartt is amazing, and her work leaves me stunned.
I will add one caveat, though: Holy heck, but the woman uses a lot of words. They’re all amazing words, of course, but when they’re piled up in such huge heaps, it can be hard to appreciate how gorgeously wrought each individual phrase is, and that’s a shame. At 771 pages in my edition, I hate to say it but – I think this book is a little too long.
‘The Goldfinch’ is a huge, dense, complex and challenging book. Every second of the ten years its author has spent writing it is evident; the amount of research Tartt must have done in order to make the book so real, so detailed, so utterly ‘trompe l’oeil’, is there to be seen. I have read reviews which have criticised the book for being too detailed, but I don’t agree with that. For me, the level of description is just right – the details make the scenes come alive in a way I’ve rarely experienced.
It’s not giving anything away to say that the book tells the story of Theodore Decker who, at thirteen, is involved in a horrific event at an art museum. He and his mother, attending an exhibition featuring the painting which gives the novel its name, are caught up in an explosion. Separated by chance at the exact moment the bomb detonates, Theo survives – but of his mother, there is no sign. Theo, caught in the rubble and dust of the half-collapsed building, becomes aware of an elderly man lying nearby – a man he had earlier glimpsed walking with a red-haired girl who had, for reasons unknown even to Theo himself, caught his eye. In a very moving passage, we see Theo keeping this strange, dying man company as his last breaths leave his body, but the old man lives long enough to give Theo a ring, an address to bring it to, and an instruction to take a painting which is lying, frameless, nearby.
Stunned, terrified, half-concussed, Theo obeys, and stumbles out of the rubble with a priceless Grand Master under his arm.
Over the days that follow, Theo realises his mother has been killed. He is removed from his home and his old life by social workers, and attempts are made to place him with his distant and uninvolved grandparents. Because they are unable – or unwilling – to take him, he goes to live with a schoolfriend, Andy Barbour, and his family, society people with household staff and an apartment which overlooks Park Avenue. One of the most interesting – if, I felt, underused – characters in this novel is Mrs Barbour, Andy’s mother, who is described as cool, standoffish and controlled (the epitome of New York sangfroid), but who turns out to be one of the only stable and supportive pillars in Theo’s life. He lives, as happily as he can, with this family for quite some time – until the day his feckless, addicted, alcoholic father, with trashy girlfriend in tow – arrive back into his life and announce they want to bring him to Las Vegas to live with them.
In Las Vegas he meets Boris, a boy of around his own age who is described as having an ‘Australian-Ukrainian’ accent, which I found annoying because there was just no way I could imagine such a thing. The way Boris’ dialect is written sounded totally Ukrainian/Russian to me, and it gets more so as the book goes on. Boris is a shambling, rambling type, a boy who – like his alcoholic, depressive, raging, abusive father – lives his life in the constant grip of some sort of stimulant or sedative, and who leads Theo down a path which is the diametric opposite of the one he was living in New York. He fades out of school, he becomes addicted to a variety of substances, he starts to get involved in petty crime, and – touchingly – he begins to grow close to his father for the first time in his life.
Through all of this, he has the painting hidden away, wrapped in a pillowcase and secured with duct tape. It reminds him of his mother, because she loved it, and because she died in her attempt to see it, and he cannot bear to give it back.
Then, another tragedy derails his life once again, and he runs from Las Vegas with the weight of a thousand worlds on his young shoulders, strung out and homeless, and desperate with fear. In his luggage, he has the stolen painting. Back in New York, he seeks out the address given to him by the dying old man in the museum, and he brings the ring he was given. What he finds is a home, and the love of a beautiful character named Hobie – a giant of a man who restores antique furniture with the skill and care of an artist – and an opportunity to live a secure and peaceful life.
But Theo can’t allow himself to do this, at least not while the stolen painting is still in his possession. As the years pass, we begin to learn how valuable it is, and how desperately the art world wishes to retrieve it – and how heavily this weighs on Theo. I loved the way Tartt paints her narrator, and how convincingly she portrays this conflict at the heart of his character. He knows he should return the painting, and he is afraid of the consequences if he does not, but he simply can’t bring himself to do it. Having said all that, I have to admit that I simply did not like Theo very much, as a human being or as a narrator. I found it difficult to warm to him, I found myself thinking that he only had himself to blame for a lot of the trouble he ended up in, and – while I understood his intense need to keep the painting, and not hand it in – I couldn’t help but think to myself as I read: ‘Just throw it away! Leave it somewhere! Hand it in anonymously! Mail it to the museum!’ Anything to be free of the burden of it.
But that, of course, is the point.
His struggles reminded me of Raskolnikov’s in ‘Crime and Punishment’, and I thought it was strange that Tartt kept mentioning ‘The Idiot’, and even makes reference to Raskolnikov (through the mouth of Boris) – it was like she was afraid her readers wouldn’t get what she was driving at unless she spelled it out in extremely clear terms. I felt she didn’t really need to do this; her depiction of Theo’s mental self-torture is effective enough without labouring the comparison. In any case, as Theo grows up, his internal struggles grow with him, and his attempts to self-medicate lead him down darker and darker paths, until eventually he ends up in a situation where you, the reader, feel there is only one way out.
I don’t want to give away anything about how the plot develops – mainly because even writing a paraphrase of it would be far too long for one blog post! – but also because I’d hate to spoil the complexity of it for anyone else. Overall, I thought ‘The Goldfinch’ was an excellent study of human psychology and a touching exploration of the bonds of friendship, though I feel very deeply that Theo is not being honest with himself at any point in this sprawling narrative, and that is the overriding impression I will take away from the novel. I was left feeling a little cheated by the ending, too, though on another level I’m glad it concluded the way it did. I do think the book is too long, too in love with its own verbosity and splendour, and perhaps a little too reliant on stereotype – drunk, brawling Russians; icy society beauties; large, clumsy-looking but utterly gentle father-figures; white-trash girlfriends – but in so many ways it is a novel worth reading.
It’s not for those who like gentle storytelling, and it’s not for those looking for a light read. It’s a mystery, and a thriller, and a love story (several of those, in fact), and an examination of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – and it was worth waiting for.
Have you read it? If so, I’d love to know your thoughts.