Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Theo Decker is in a heap of trouble at the smart Manhattan school he attends (thanks to the hard work and sacrifices made by his solo mother) – he dreads her disappointment in him as they are summoned to a meeting with the Principal.  He wishes to be anywhere else but in a cab, heading towards his disgrace and possible suspension. 
Serindipitously (he thinks) their cab is stuck in a traffic jam, forcing them to leave and walk the rest of the way, only to be so drenched with rain that they take shelter in an uptown Museum that is currently hosting an exhibition of 17th century Dutch Masters:  could anything be better, thinks Theo;  his mother, an art lover, intended to see the exhibition anyway and Theo feels fortunate that art has always nurtured her spirit throughout a chaotically unhappy marriage to Theo’s father, an alcoholic, and the consequent struggle after he deserts them to provide a stable and loving environment for her son: who knows - by the time they meet with the Principal she might even feel moved to defend him, rather than take the opposite view.
Ah, chance is a fine thing, but it refuses to work in Theo’s favour:  he is sent to the Museum gift shop to buy postcards while his mother returns for a last look at Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and in that short time a terrorist bomb is detonated with catastrophic results, including the unthinkable:  his beloved, beautiful and loving mother is killed instantly in the explosion.  Theo is knocked out, miraculously spared serious injury, and able to comfort an old man who dies a little later;  he even retrieves (at the old man’s request) one of the paintings seemingly untouched by the blast:  a small and beautiful painting of a Goldfinch – but where is his mother?  The great pillar and support of his life, the fulcrum, is there no longer:  what is he to do?
After this literally life-changing event, Theo measures his life by his existence before the explosion, the peace, security, affection and stability of his mother’s presence, and after, when he was forced to face life without her.
In Theo’s post-explosion world, he is compelled to face many huge changes, not always for the better:  he is taken in at first by the Barbour family, wealthy Park Avenue residents and the parents of his only school friend – until his father materialises after a year with a new girlfriend, Xandra. (Xandra?  What kind of name is that.)  ‘We live in Vegas now, Buddy – you’ll really like it out there.’  Yeah, right.  Las Vegas is no place for a grieving, traumatised thirteen year old boy, ignored and uncared-for by a couple who live their lives oblivious to his everyday needs – until he meets Boris at his high school:  Boris, battered son of a Russian mining engineer;  ebullient, indefatigable, crime-wave-waiting-to-happen, try-anything-more-than-once Boris, who, despite his nihilism and fatally bad influence on Theo, manages to steer his friend back to New York and the stability he so sorely needs.  And throughout Theo’s Las Vegas sojourn, he has gained comfort and solace from a secret and unexpected source:  the Goldfinch, that little jewel of a painting that Theo should have handed in to the authorities but never did:  it is now his lodestone, his talisman, and his life, so miserable and despairing would be even worse without it
Ms Tartt has written an extraordinary story, tumultuous and sweeping in plot and characterisation;  her prose is sumptuous and deft, and despite the sadness of Theo’s circumstances there is a wonderful, Dickensian humour that colours most pages of this vast (770-odd pages, but fear not:  all you need is strong wrists!) and superlative page-turner.  As an additional delight, her writings and musings on art are beautiful and moving, especially her thoughts on the Goldfinch, that brave, dignified little creature, tethered always to his little brass perch.  Her characters leap from the page;  the kindly Hobie, decent and tolerant, who becomes a guardian of sorts for Theo and teaches him a trade;  Mrs Barbour, ‘a fashion drawing come to life’, spectacularly undemonstrative but responsible and caring – and Boris, always Boris who, despite fulfilling early everyone’s predictions that he would embrace ‘a life of crime’ and at one stage betraying Theo in the worst possible way, manages to turn up trumps for him when it matters most. Boris is unforgettable.  

My only criticism is this:  ‘The Goldfinch’ is Donna Tartt’s third novel in twenty years.  She gained great international acclaim for her first work, ‘The Secret History’ in 1992:  there followed ‘The Little Friend’ in 2002 and now we have opus # 3.  She has famously said that ‘a novel takes as long as it takes to write’ and I don’t doubt that for a minute:  the only trouble with long gestations is that I might be pushing up the daisies by the time she produces the next masterwork, and the thought of that ticks me off no end – not the fact that I might have reached the end of the trail, but that I could miss Ms Tartt’s next wonderful book!  Most highly recommended.         

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