“The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy”
Donna Tartt in her third novel,”The Goldfinch” has managed to do something rather wonderful and the mechanism is mysterious. I had been definitely absorbed in the book, in a satisfying page turning sort of way; then there came a point when I fell inside the spell of the book – its world becoming real and textured.
At one and the same time I was eager to be making the continuing journey of narrative , and yet – I wanted to stay exactly where I was and savour the moment, the reality of where the characters were NOW – she had somehow stopped time for me and I was reading in a very present way, inside the world
Tartt managed exactly this trick with her first book The Secret History, creating something special and magical. Her second long awaited book, The Little Friend, was a huge damp squib, for this reader, her sharp intelligence and precision somehow soft: it irritated me, I disliked it.
But here she is again, and this one is fabulous. Set across America, primarily in New York, but also in the wide-open spaces of Nevada, in the hinterland of Las Vegas, the book opens in Amsterdam, the central character a man somehow on the run, hyped up, holed up, hiding in a hotel room, sweating, edgy, on the edge of panic. The trajectory of the book is to start him on his journey to reach that anxious opening, and then go beyond
The book is like a large 5 act play – and in some ways reminds me, in its structure, of Shakespeare’s last plays, the ones that move beyond tragedy to redemption and understanding – Winter’s Tale, The Tempest etc. We have a journey for the central character of the dreadful, lacking – not so much self-awareness as the discipline to manage his character flaws, a certain feckless, dark, damaged nature – and the journey is really to a better accommodation with self. Not the Hollywood journey, the, `make it all better tie the bows and open the box of chocolates journey, but the more bitter, more mature journey of better understanding, and ability to live within the flawed self, and within a flawed world.
I am surprised at all the references to Dickens, how like Dickens this was – for me, this connection was not there at all – where I saw Tartt inhabiting some nineteenth century place it was the Russians – and particularly Dostoyevsky.
Theodore Decker inhabits a dark, despairing nihilistic universe, which may not take him into such wrongdoing as Raskolnikov, but he does have extremely flexible attitudes to right and wrong – that is, not so much to how wrongdoing damages him, merely that he is not quite able to avoid making poor choices. He combines despair with a fervid appreciation of the value of art and beauty, and transcendence. Some very complex, layered depth of character.
Though there is of course a story, as we know from the start, connected with the mysterious Dutch painting of a goldfinch, this is not primarily the story of the painting – there is indeed a strong narrative, a very strong sense of time and place, but what Tartt is doing is exploring the complexity of character and also of ethics.
Her writing is beautiful, measured and potent. I particularly appreciated the change landscapes and times imposed on her language in the different sections, moving from a beautiful evocation of wintery Amsterdam, to the vibrant nature of New York (separated by a passage of time, two `acts’ here) and the weird, frenetic Las Vegas excess and waste setting, before returning to the start, and travelling beyond, now we understand Theo’s journey
And, running like a lest-we-forget throughout, the reminder of the potent Goldfinch painting, which is both a real object, and a deeply charged, talismanic, symbolic item.
Here is an extract, with a flavour of her writing – gorgeous, evocative – and deadly
Sometimes, in the evenings, a damp, gritty wind blew in the windows from Park Avenue, just as the rush hour traffic was thinning and the city was emptying for the night; it was rainy, trees leafing out, spring deepening into summer; and the forlorn cries of horns on the street, the dank smell of the wet pavement had an electricity about it, a sense of crowds and static, lonely secretaries and fat guys with bags of carry-out, everywhere the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.
That paragraph, started, for me, to play, strongly, Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, and just as I was comfortably in the blue melancholy, Tartt, as so often, delivered a harsh punch to the gut. She shows you beauty, and immediately nestles you up against the flip side of rot, despair, decay.
So, having stunned and grabbed this reader with that first book, this magical third has been waiting 20 years to grab me again with its mix of dark and light. Hope It doesn’t take her another 20 to produce something this fine!
And I am properly envious of anyone about to start reading this; enjoy the catch of Tartt’s carefully crafted spiders’ web novel, hover round the edges as long as you can, I’m sure she will stickily, skilfully wind you in and tie you up tight ere long.