Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch
I enjoyed reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, remaining gripped throughout its 800-odd pages. Whether the novel amounted to a great deal more than a thoroughly good read: of that I’m doubtful. The question only arises because of the serious issues hinted at, but not developed in any significant way, in the novel’s powerful opening chapter, and by the Macguffin at its heart – the precious and exquisite work of art which accompanies the narrator from his childhood bereavement, through teenage dissipation to a chilling endgame in Amsterdam.
Readers had been waiting a long time for a new book from Donna Tartt – eleven years to be precise – so, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch has a bestseller, as well as garnering much critical acclaim. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, called it ‘a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole’. However, the critical reception hasn’t been wholly rapturous: a review in the London Review of Books described it as a ‘children’s book’ for adults.
It really depends on your expectations. Having read (and enjoyed) Tartt’s two previous books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), I was not expecting great literature that probed the urgent moral and social of our time. The Goldfinch, indeed, shares many characteristics of the two earlier novels: situated for at least half its length in a childhood or adolescent milieu, and turning out to be, basically, a superior sort of thriller. Tartt is especially good at getting inside the minds of pre-adult males, and is acutely observant of teenage mores and amoral behaviour. To that extent, the first two-thirds of The Goldfinch follow the pattern of her earlier books. In the opening chapter it seems as if it might offer more.
After a brief prologue in Amsterdam, Tartt begins by rewinding 14 years to the day when Theo, the novel’s narrator, loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes as they are visiting New York’s Metropolitan Museum. This chapter, written in gripping prose, reminded me of the astonishing first chapter of Don de Lillo’s Underworld. Theo and his mother are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are brilliantly written.
There’s a sense here that themes of great significance may be unfolding. No reader could fail to sense some sort of parallel with 9/11. And when Theo leaves the wreckage of the museum with a painting – one that actually exists in the world, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius – the anticipation grows that Tartt’s novel might resonate with the concerns of a time that has seen the treasures of great cultures destroyed in acts of war and terror. For surely, Tartt means us to recall the explosion, in Delft in October 1654, when a gunpowder arsenal blew up, killing hundreds of people, among them the young painter, Carel Fabritius. Perhaps her intention is that we should meditate on the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan buddhas?
But it’s not to be, despite the fact that, minutes before her death, Theo’s mother tells him as she stands before the painting, ‘Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. This may be what irritated some critics: apart from a couple of paragraphs at the end of the novel that feel tacked on, the miraculous survival of Fabritius’s painting in two explosions (one real, one fictitious) matters to Tartt only insofar as it provides the motor for the art-world crime thriller that makes up the final third of the book.
The longest section of the The Goldfinch is one which has led some critics to compare the novel to Dickens’s Great Expectations. A motherless child, Theo is first taken in by the wealthy Manhattan family of a nerdish school friend, presided over by the Miss Haversham-like figure of Mrs Barbour. But, after a few months his estranged alcoholic gambler of a father turns up to whisk him away to a barren suburb of Las Vegas. There, Theo meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend: Boris, a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenage Ukrainian who leads Theo into a world of excess.
Along with the opening section, this was for me the best part of the novel. Theo’s friendship with Boris – the son of a crooked Russian businessman, portrayed in vivid terms by Tartt – is the backbone of the story. It is this friendship, not anyone’s devotion to art and its ideals, that saves ‘The Goldfinch’ – and Theo himself.