On the Bookshelf: May 2014 (The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt)

I seem to have hit a bit of a brick wall of late with my writing- anyway, here is a review of of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch… 

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (via Wikimedia Commons)

Theo Decker’s life changes forever when the mother he adores is killed in a terrorist attack at a New York art museum. Amid the chaos of the explosion, the thirteen-year-old takes two actions with unforeseen consequences- he pledges to return a ring from a dying man, Welty, to his friend, and he also rescues a priceless Renaissance painting from the debris and runs away, thinking his mother will meet him later. But of course, his mother is already dead, and in the absence of his alcoholic father, Theo is now alone in the world.

The painting he steals, a masterpiece by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius called The Goldfinch, was one Theo’s mother admired in the moments leading up to the bomb. Presumed destroyed by the authorities, Theo is too frightened and traumatised to hand it in.

He is taken in by his friend’s parents, the wealthy and WASPish Barbours. He keeps his promise to the dying man in the museum, and becomes friends with antique dealer James ‘Hobie’ Hobart and Welty’s niece, Pippa.  Although dreading the idea of being packed off to his cold grandparents in Maryland, Theo finally regains a semblance of normality- and then his father shows up with a new girlfriend, Xandra, and wants to take him to Las Vegas. Off the drink, Larry Decker has replaced it with gambling and prescription drugs.

Life in Sin City is chaotic- Theo is neglected by his father and new stepmother, and becomes friends with the similarly neglected Boris, an Ukrainian whose father is a violent alcoholic, and whose mother died long ago. Boris and Theo embrace drink and drugs wholeheartedly, barely ever struggle into school, and torment the security guards of Vegas malls with their shoplifting.

All the while, Theo has The Goldfinch concealed in his room, ever anxious at the prospect of arrest for art theft. The painting, of a small captive goldfinch, becomes a talisman in his increasingly chaotic life.

To say any more would be to deprive you of the wonderful twists and turns ahead- some of which you may guess, others which will grab you by utter surprise.  Tartt’s prose is perfectly pitched. The bleakness of Theo’s situation in the early stage of the book, and the rawness of his loss, is expertly sketched.

There are parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, but Tartt revels in turning the reader’s expectations upside down. Boris is a liar and a thief, but beyond his self-interest, he is “one of the great friends of my life” in Theo’s own words. The Barbours are a stereotypical New England upper-class couple- he with his sailing and business interests, her with her charity events and chilly demeanour, but both confound the reader. Even Platt, their jock son, is more than he appears. The strength of novel lies in Tartt’s ability to take cliched, almost stock characters, and turn them into real, rounded human beings.

Not so fabulous... The Goldfinch shows a different side to Vegas (via Wikimedia Commons)

Not so fabulous… The Goldfinch shows a different side to Vegas (via Wikimedia Commons)

Although not quite as memorable as The Secret History, The Goldfinch also displays Tartt’s ability to evoke a sense of place so effectively. At one point Theo travels across America, and the “unrelieved sky” of the midwest is beautifully drawn. While I sincerely doubt any Las Vegas tourism chiefs will be asking Tartt for a reference, she also paints an amazing picture of the side of the city rarely seen- unending suburban sprawl, desert heat, and, on the edge, sand claiming back unsold houses in what we Irish would call a ghost estate.

Theo’s narration begins in an Amsterdam hotel room, and it’s here in the Dutch capital, Fabritius’ old home, that the novel reaches its climax. Again, Tartt’s eye for detail captures the magic of a northern European city near Christmastime- not unlike the black comedy In Bruges, the mixture of the criminal underworld and a old, old waterborne city is handled with great aplomb.

The Goldfinch is long, but extremely absorbing. While the last few pages, where we receive a bit of an art history lesson and Tartt makes the well-worn point that the art we make lives after us, are a bit extraneous, we can forgive Theo a bit of digression after all he’s been through. Another excellent Donna Tartt novel- how I wish she’d write a bit more often!


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