Perhaps it’s because I’m shortsighted. Not literally – well, yes, literally, -1.5 in fact – but I mean, unsympathetic, unable to look past my little life, my prejudices, my black and white mindset. Walking faster on the street past a homeless person. Holding my bag closer when a hoody-wearing yoof passes. I’m not proud of these things, at all. I can know objectively that it’s wrong, but the only thing that blows past this knowledge and really, truly, stretches my grubby little mindset is a novel – one long enough, clever enough and generally brilliant enough to blow past the smog of my preconceptions and bring me into the life of a person whose experience I don’t share, whose life I couldn’t dream of. And not only worthy people – awful people, misguided people too. It blows a hole in the top of your brain and lets the light and the mud fall in alike, and it leaves you bigger.
It’s an old argument for the worth of a novel; that it explores abstract points in a human way; that is can communicate things out of the reach of all other artform. Its length allows for the prolonged exploration of and inhabition of characters, for your to live with and explore themes. Film, poetry, drama, non-fiction, philosophy – no. The novel allows me to see things in life that would be invisible or appear irrelevant in any other artistic or non-artistic form.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a wonderful, marvellous case in point. It’s the story of a boy caught in a bomb attack which kills his mother and changes him forever, setting him on a radical course. The boy and his rapscallion friend, Boris, are the dual protagonists – and thieves, drug-addicts and dealers, murderers and liers. About a third through, sick of the drugs, neglect, waste and hopelessness, I yearned for Theo’s peaceful return to the haven of Hobie’s antique shop. But this novel has nothing as pat, as simple, as a healing return, as restitution, of damage soothed through love and the stability of society. The broken state is permanent, and as true as the non-damaged – fundamental to the characters and the story. The novel peels it back until you stop judging and join the journey. You stop condemning the hero and his exaggerated Russian sidekick as the criminals they are and walk the journey with them.
In words of Stephen King’s review in NYT: “The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.” This is one clever-ass book – I’ll get back to that – but it’s the heart that makes it glow. In its length and excellence it recalled The Luminaries, but there’s something warmer, less cerebral, less experimental, less confusing than Catton’s novel (which was my top read of 2013, so high praise indeed.) Much has been written about its length (almost 800 pages) but frankly this took me less time to read than Things Fall Apart, about six times shorter, because it is compelling and at some late stages almost unputdownable, and that wasn’t down to the quality of thought. Several reviews have dubbed The Goldfinch “Dickensian” – mixed praise in my book – but I can assure you it’s more Great Expectations than David Copperfield, in that it has a single, driving plot of genuine suspense, agony and attachment.
But enough about the beauty – how about the brains?
This is a book with a lot to say, much of it dark and unsettling. It asks some major questions which you’re not expecting it to – what to do with your nature if it is, put simply, bad? Is the societal good really “good? Theo stands well outside of society, and its strictures are seen as of decreasing importance as the book proceeds. Eventually, Theo comes out with a individualist worldview, entirely focussed on the self. Laid out cold on the page, it sounds brittle, light, but it the context of a world of chaos, pain and the heavens and hells of one’s own psyche that have been painfully built up over the years and pages , it’s deep, problematic, profoundly real.
To these somewhat destructive questions are added some very interesting meditations on the role of art and its value – again profoundly individual but also profoundly democratic – all art can have value to a person, and not just art – a moment, a view, a memory – a sacred alignment (as much as there is anything sacred in this novel, it is art.) These threads run throughout the novel but are explored fully in the last chapter which gets a bit intellectual – I had to read it twice, once in the flush of finishing the novel, once to get what it said. But while it makes a lot of the intellectual juice explicit, the true heart of the novel is the story, the characters.
Tartt famously writes a book a decade, and this is her third. I agree with public perception that her first, The Secret History, is masterful, while her second, The Little Friend, was less successful. The see-saw seems to have come down in favour of The Secret History, but for me The Goldfinch is a high perching delight. Read it, read it.