In recent interviews, Donna Tartt has spoken eloquently about the immersive and addictive magic of good stories, strong characters and plot, and of her desire to work these qualities into her own writing. While such aims might describe a popular novel consumed at great speed only to be tossed aside equally quickly, Tartt’sThe Goldfinch is altogether a more ambitious and literary affair.
There is more than a whiff of the Victorian three-decker novel about The Goldfinch than its size; many of its textual pleasures relate to that which is still enjoyable about novels from the age of circulating libraries. Tartt’s love of Dickens is also manifest in the situations that her hero, Theo Decker, finds himself in, and in the odd assortment of characters to which he becomes attached in his journey to adulthood. Dickens’ own stories of orphans in search of love and identity, his idealisations of women and the dramatic verve of figures with their distinctive traits or stylised visual codes are all in The Goldfinch. Tartt also infuses her novelistic homage with a slew of vivid allusions to films and contemporary writers, and includes cultural nods to literary masterpieces and paintings.
Like Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, The Goldfinch uses first person retrospective: Decker, thinking that he is about die, reflects on his life and misdeeds. The perspectival bifurcation (adult, child) lends itself to strategic withholdings and ironic revelations. Like Carel Fabritius’s goldfinch Decker is tethered, but to a past whose singular defining moment is the death of his mother at thirteen in a bomb blast at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A bright avian quickness in his memory, she loves art and is herself pictured as possessing “the charge and magic of a great painting”. Decker’s grief following her death is handled poignantly but not sentimentally; initially prefigured as a rising sense of panic accompanying the possibility of abandonment as a child – clock face tracked, ears preternaturally cocked for “the rumble of the elevator” – then later as an absent presence, a recurring dream of missed meetings or calls, a shadow of a figure just round the corner. Her death is the “dividing mark: Before and After”, the cause of an intense and unfufilled desire to be loved even as the boy-man lurches from one dysfunctional substitute family to another: the Barbours, affluent but emotionally diffident; Hobie and his ward, Pippa, serving as mentor and love-interest respectively (shades of The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield); and then his real father (who walked out previously), white trash stepmother and Boris, a Ukrainian Artful Dodger. Decker’s friendship and drug-fuelled companionable scrapes with Boris provide the book’s most compelling depictions of the hallucinatory bubble of teenage exclusionary self-absorption.
The Goldfinch’s plot hinges on the theft of Fabritius’ painting by a young, confused Decker in the aftermath of the bombing. Wracked by guilt, the purloined work is Decker’s secret joy and his greatest fear. As a plot device, the theft allows Tartt to write in – to my mind – the less successful thriller elements of novel, with criminals, betrayals and murders; the Victorians, after all, did make sensation novels an art form. More intriguing, however, is the novel’s attempt to come to terms with the painting’s significance. Somewhat awkwardly (changes of gear or subject matter are never easy), The Goldfinch’s closing pages take us back to the value of art, that spark of life residing even in a copy of the original. Describing Proust’s engagement with Botticelli through a reproduction of an imperfect fresco, Hobie remarks, “the damage is part of the attraction… Even through a copy Proust was able to re-dream that image… pull something all his own from it into the world.”
The Goldfinch isn’t perfectly paced; its thriller plot sits very uneasily with the narrative of loss, the story of a boy in search of his destiny or the earnest discussions about art’s value and meaning. But in an age that is overwhelmingly characterised by instant messaging or soundbites, the textual pleasures of Tartt’s modern homage are welcomed. Needless to say, she manages to pull something from her predecessors all her own into the world.