BOOK REVIEW: The Goldfinch

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch was one of a few paintings by a Dutch master, a pupil of Rembrandt, to survive an explosion in Delft that killed the artist. At the start of Tartt’s novel, over 350 years later, the painting survives a second explosion, in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is rescued (well, taken) from a dust-storm of collapsing rubble by 13-year-old Theo, who was visiting the museum with his mother. She was killed in the blast, and the painting becomes a powerful force in Theo’s life - a dangerous secret and the key to his survival. The stolen, unearned treasure acts as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt and becomes a commodity for criminals who use it as collateral.

It’s been a long wait for The Goldfinch - Tartt’s last novel came out a decade ago - but we knew we would be rewarded. Her previous work, The Little Stranger, was a Gothic murder mystery, set in the deep South. In The Secret History, we heard of the hedonistic, private world of privileged classics scholars. Here in The Goldfinch, a dysfunctional family who live in an upper East Side apartment take Theo in, and he forms an intense friendship with motherless Russian teenager Boris. The book moves from the smart parts of New York to the edge of Las Vegas, where, unsupervised by his gambling addict father, life is a roller coaster ride not so much fuelled by drugs, as crazed, anaesthetised and trashed by them. But the book’s real heart is the Dickensian furniture restoration workshop of Hobie, Theo’s saviour and moral touchstone, an exquisite figure surrounded by beautiful broken things. Tartt’s writing is sumptuous and multi-layered (prompting comparisons with Proust); the bomb in the Met is a virtuoso passage, evoking the sensory and mental confusion of a survivor, and providing a catalyst that reverberates devastatingly through his life. The book is immense in scope, and its treatment of lofty themes in sensuous passages will bear much re-reading.