After a phenomenal debut novel, and a disappointing follow up ten years later, the literary world has been all abuzz over the prospect of Donna Tartt’s third novel – The Goldfinch – arriving in print, another decade on. Would it be as gripping and disconcerting as The Secret History, her 1992 tale of classicists and murderous intent at an elite academic institution? Or would it be as, well, forgettable as The Little Friend, which won a smattering of awards but is widely described as “not as good” as her debut?
One thing is for certain. The Goldfinch is Tartt’s longest novel yet; a whopping 771 pages of dense text, taking us through every detail of the hero’s trajectory. And what a trajectory it is; in true Great American Novel tradition, it spans a life from pre-pubescence up, as we follow a lonely boy go from his home amid the bustle of Manhattan to a drug-addled adolescence in desert wasteland and then to a walk-on part in a gritty crime-filled European underworld. From the beginning, I was hooked – and The Goldfinch didn’t disappoint. This is the sort of book that you fall into; so gripping that you’ll look forward to your journey home just so you can read it.
The Goldfinch is ostensibly about an obscure but affecting painting – referenced in the title – or rather, about the disappearance of the painting. More specifically, it is about a charismatic but damaged young man named Theo Decker, and how his involuntary connection to this painting directs the course of his life.
All but orphaned in tragic circumstances, the young Decker embarks on something of an odyssey as he is taken in by some icy but well-connected Manhattanites – a world of boats and boarding schools and illogical nicknames, one that is often brought to fiction but rarely so vividly portrayed – then by his errant, alcoholic father, and later, by a kindly almost-stranger, who too has a curious link with the painting. Decker, who is variously both philosopher and reprobate, lives a precarious life as he grapples to come to term with what happened on one fateful day and exert control over what happens since.
Like Jeffrey Eugenides, whose work this novel brought to mind, Tartt chronicles Decker’s life in an absurd, even obsessive, but ever gratifying level of detail, so that we feel every calamity and cling desperately to his highs, hoping that they will not prove too ephemeral. This is an epic adventure, a sprawling tale that covers thousands of miles and raises questions about the preservation of art and memory, and weaves this in with a rich and colourful cast of characters, from the Ukrainian delinquent Boris, a sort of Artful Dodger for our age, to the eccentric, bumbling furniture restorer Hobie and the overly-medicated New York socialite Mrs Barbour.
My one complaint – other than the shoulder damage caused by lugging such an addictive but weighty novel to and fro – was that the ending felt a tad forced; almost as if she was not sure how to wrap up the marvellous mystery, and settled for a convenient coincidence. But given the length of The Goldfinch, and how thrilling and engaging her writing, this is a book that should be read for the journey, not for the pay-off. Certainly, Tartt poses a mystery for us to solve, but that was hardly the reason I kept turning so many pages.
A book so long, a storyline so inexplicable, surrounded by so much hype; it shouldn’t be worth it – but it is.Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is published by Little Brown, and available to buy online here.