This is not the kind of book you can review without destroying the reading experience of others coming after you, so I’m not going to review it, as such. I’m sure everyone knows by now that this book is about a hitherto rather obscure painting of a goldfinch by the 17th century artist Carel Fabritius, in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague. The basic premise is that this painting is in an exhibition at the Met that Theo Decker’s mother takes him to see one morning when he is thirteen. While they are at the museum, there is a huge explosion caused by a terrorist bomb, and while Theo survives, his mother dies. During the immediate aftermath of the bomb, Theo regains consciousness and manages to crawl across to a dying old man who gives him his signet ring and tells him where to take it. He also tells him to steal The Goldfinch, which he does. Theo then escapes the museum undetected, and the rest of the novel charts Theo’s life from that day into his late twenties, from which perspective Theo narrates the events of the novel. I initially thought it was going to be about Theo discovering some sort of mystery connected with the painting, but there is no real mystery here at all. To say much more would ruin how pleasurable it is to have the story and characters evolve beneath your eyes, in so many unexpected directions.
What I will say is that this is a fantastic, fantastic novel, creating a world so realistic that I was utterly absorbed within it. I felt I knew the characters, who are so convincingly portrayed that I could hear them and see them as I read. I wanted to know everything about them, and became desperately concerned about their fates. The settings were places I felt I had visited, so well does Tartt realise them on the page. I have seen some reviews that complain The Goldfinch is bloated, self indulgent and needs editing, but I couldn’t disagree more. The length of the novel allows it the time and space to weave its spell of realism on the reader. Yes, a few scenes could have been cut slightly shorter, and there are events that are probably not entirely necessary, but if they weren’t there, then the depth of the characters and the understanding the reader gains of them would be compromised. This is a character driven novel, and the length reflects the excess of experiences the young narrator lives through in a relatively short period of time. I wouldn’t have missed a page; each one was a pleasure to read, and each character a masterpiece of portraiture.
I read a similarly long novel earlier this year entitled The Luminaries, which won the Booker Prize and triggered a considerable amount of debate. It was very clever and it was very well written, but it had no heart that I could find. It was a mask of the kind the literary establishment seems to praise of late; something of style but no substance, something that makes the reader marvel at the skill without taking away anything to treasure in their heart. I was worried that The Goldfinch would be of a similar vein, but it was an utter joy to find that it was not. Tartt is a phenomenally intelligent writer with the ability to manipulate the language she uses in order to create characters that are utterly individualised. Her purpose when writing is not merely to impress, but to write a story that captures the heart and the imagination, whisking readers away into another world. In the act of doing so, she also manages to write something that is complex and profound, something that challenges and questions, while simultaneously being easy and pleasurable to read. Accessible literary fiction is hard to find; it is rare to come across people reading a Pulitzer Prize winning novel on a beach, but this is just that sort of novel; one that appeals to many, and is accessible to all. This is the kind of writing that deserves plaudits; this is the kind of writing I compare novels such as The Luminaries to, and rightly therefore find them lacking. Donna Tartt has no rival I can think of; The Goldfinch is perfection, and everyone should read it.
ps. I have started a facebook page for the blog so that I can give updates on what I’m reading in between blog post – you can sign up by clicking on this link!