December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’

By Caroline Hamilton
Little, Brown; $32.99

Theo Decker is 13 when he survives a bomb attack that kills his mother. The pair are taking shelter from bad weather at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art when terrorists strike. The explosion occurs just after Theo’s mother has drawn his attention to her favourite painting, the Dutch master Carel Fabritius’ 1654 The Goldfinch. In the chaos after the explosion, Theo grabs the picture and flees. It shows a small pet bird tethered to a perch, which comes to serve as a haunting emblem in what follows.

In Fabritius’ day, the goldfinch was a popular cage bird. It was also obsessively painted, and came to symbolise endurance and suffering. With almost 800 pages before them, readers of Donna Tartt’s latest novel also need to have a touch of the obsessive. The Goldfinch is unashamedly dense with narrative detail. The novel chronicles the 14 years through which Theo drifts from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, through the high and low lives of fine art restoration and drug addiction. A near-orphan, Theo has few allies in life save for a kindly furniture restorer, Hobie, a wayward best friend, Boris – a memorable Ukrainian by way of Australia and Russia – and a childhood love, Pippa. Despite some improbable scenarios, the novel is filled with sharp detail and piercing experiences from the feel of fine antique brocades between the fingers to the fugue state of a drug high.

Tartt made her name more than 20 years ago with The Secret History, a debut that showcased an unusual talent for cerebral and controlled prose combined with the taut pacing of genre fiction. Here she demonstrates this talent yet again: although Theo makes several attempts to restore the stolen painting to the museum, he cannot let go and is eventually led into a dark underworld of drug lords and gangsters.

Several reviewers have made comparisons with Dickens’ gripping serials and even JK Rowling’s tales of the boy-wizard Harry Potter (a similarity noted by one of the characters late in the novel), but it may be more apt to compare Tartt’s elaborate story to the must-see cable TV shows that currently constitute so much of our narrative diet. The Goldfinch brings the pleasure of a dense, immersive story from our small screens back to books, and provides readers ample excuse for an obsessive binge.

December 2013 - January 2014

From the front page

How you are when you leave

This must be how it feels to retire

Accused under privilege

NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong denounces a colleague

Image of Scott Morrison and the ScoMo Express

The ScoMo Express backfires

The PM’s farcical bus tour cements spin over substance as his brand

Illustration

APEC comes to PNG

Shipped-in Maseratis and single-use venues are a world away from real life in Port Moresby


In This Issue

Jonathan Teplitzky’s ‘The Railway Man’

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman on the Burma Railway

We don’t want to believe in climate change

Fire, climate and denial

Ocean Drive, Miami. © Virginia Duran

Back to Miami

A dip into childhood

Bill Garner’s ‘Born in a Tent’

NewSouth Books; $39.99


More in Arts & Letters

Still from The Old Man and the Gun

‘The Old Man and the Gun’ and the outlaw Robert Redford

David Lowery’s new film pays too much tribute to the Sundance Kid

Image of Eddie Perfect

Eddie Perfect goes to Broadway

The Australian composer has two musicals – ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘King Kong’ – opening in New York

Image of Julia Holter

A bigger, shinier cage: Julia Holter’s ‘Aviary’

A classically schooled composer seeks shelter from the cacophony of modern life

Detail of a painting of Barron Field

Barron Field and the myth of terra nullius

How a minor poet made a major historical error


More in Noted

Image of Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in bed, NYC 1983.

‘American Masters’ at the National Gallery of Australia

The best of the US, drawn from Canberra’s own collection

‘Less’ by Andrew Sean Greer

The Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an engaging story of love and literary misadventure

Hannah Gadsby: ‘Nanette’

Believe the hype about the Tasmanian comedian’s Netflix special

Cover of A Sand Archive

‘A Sand Archive’ by Gregory Day

Day grasps landscape as an intimate living thing


Read on

Image of Scott Morrison and the ScoMo Express

The ScoMo Express backfires

The PM’s farcical bus tour cements spin over substance as his brand

Image from ‘Suspiria’

Twisted sisters: Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Suspiria’

Sentimentality ruins the magic of this otherwise unsettling and actively cruel film

Image from ‘The Other Side of the Wind’

Orson Welles’s ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and Morgan Neville’s ‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’

The auteur’s messy mockumentary and the documentary that seeks to explain it are imperfect but better together

Image of Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison’s foreign forays

The PM concluded a week of patchy diplomacy with his first major speech on foreign policy


×
×