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.

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