REVIEW: Karin Schimke
The Goldfinch is long – and its length has come in for some flack.
Is Tartt too precious to allow herself to be edited? Was it necessary for the book to come in at just under 800 pages? Can the modern reader really be expected to double his or her average reading time for a novel to indulge this decidedly non-prolific, but indisputably successful, writer?
Length – where it does not concern lazy editing or author arrogance – is a matter of taste. If long novels bore and frustrate you, then steer clear of Tartt’s third book. If, however, you are undaunted by commitment to a deeply immersive, sensory-heightening, eye-widening, intellectually and emotionally astute story – that also manages to pack in some pretty impressive thriller action – then you will find The Goldfinch rewarding.
New Yorker Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother after his father abandoned the family endeavour and disappeared from their lives. Theirs is a close and friendly bond, and they struggle on – as single-parent families do – in the wake of his Dad’s abandonment.
But then there’s a terrible rupture when mother and son pop into a gallery one day to see a favourite painting of his mother’s.
In one shatteringly vivid scene, Theo loses his mother and gains a painting. The painting is the novel’s hook, the hypnotic and potent secret external centre point of Theo’s haphazard post-trauma life.
Only just a teenager, Theo now bumbles his way through survival, brushing up against a variety of characters as he is passed around like a burdensome package. The action moves from New York (where he is looked after by a rich family, whose nerdiest son was once Theo’s best friend) to Las Vegas (where his errant father now resides with a distinctly non-maternal woman).
His descent from a cherished, respected son of a loving mother, to a neglected irritation in a barren domestic and geographic wilderness is eased by an intense, mad friendship with a multi-lingual Russian boy named Boris. Later, Theo returns to New York and lands softly in the succour of a kindly furniture restorer called Hobie. This is where Theo finds his professional home as an antiques dealer.
And all along, he is weighed down by a small picture Carel Fabricius painted in 1654, which remains in his stealthy possession as both a ball-and-chain that pulls him towards the criminal underworld, and a tether to the comfort of beauty.
The painting – of a goldfinch chained to a small wooden box – exists, and The Frick Collection which resides in New York, has seen a major spike in visitors since Tartt’s book hit the shelves in the States in October last year.
It’s also worth noting that there are rumours that The Goldfinch is being touted as a possible television series. It is that long, and that eventful, that this comes as no surprise, and it can be imagined as a slightly more gritty, more textured version of the popular White Collar series.
Tartt – who has been called The Brigadoon of best-selling authors, because she “appears out of the mist” only once every ten years – first came to public attention with her book The Secret History, which charts the descent of a group of literary students at a privileged American university into Bacchanalian madness. The book was translated into 24 languages and sold over five million copies worldwide.
Her next book, The Little Friend, appearing a full ten years later, was successful, but it left less of a mark on literary imagination. In The Goldfinch, a return to The Secret History themes of aesthetic beauty, of guilt and – to some degree – social class, is warmly familiar.
It is, most particularly, her treatment of the totemic power of things, particularly things of beauty, that most steadfastly, but delicately, holds this novel together.
“And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they cannot connect you to some larger beauty,” asks Hobie. “Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?”
Theo’s obsession with the painting is a form of idolatry, his connection to it a teenage “transitional object” (as per the psychologist Derek Winnicott’s definition) that keeps him connected to his mother.
Later – in the final chapter, the only part of the book that I have problems with because it felt a little glib – Theo recalls that Hobie also said that beauty “alters the grain of reality”.
Theo narrates: “And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. Only what is that thing … how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is an illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?”
The Goldfinch is long. But it is also charming: warm, eventful, empathic and engaging.
The Goldfinch is a long, solitary meander through a gallery of ideas about friendship, survival and beauty.
But don’t bother with it if you’re in a hurry.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014