The Goldfinch

Eleven years in the writing, the impact of this novel will last for many more
September 18, 2013
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, £20)

I don’t like to give away the ending of a novel, but in the case of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I don’t want to reveal details of the beginning. Why risk spoiling a reader’s encounter with the shock and ambition of Tartt’s metaphysical thriller? Suffice it to say that her hero, 13-year-old Theo Decker, survives a terrible accident in which his adored mother dies, and he forms a profound attachment to a celebrated (and real) small painting of a goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt’s most gifted student, who died in 1654, the year he painted it. We follow Theo over 14 years, from his dazed recovery in New York; to Las Vegas, where he joins his gambler father, and befriends Boris, a druggy street kid from Ukraine; back to New York as an adult where he becomes a partner in an antiques business; and finally to a violent confrontation with the criminal underworld in Amsterdam. It is an odyssey both exact and phantasmagorical, suspenseful and dreamy.

Tartt is a notoriously slow writer, and The Goldfinch has been 11 years in preparation, but in the epic range of its concerns with grief, loss, loneliness, fate, and the nature of good and evil, its rich cast of characters, and its broad social canvas, it bears comparison with Proust, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Nabokov. Although the novel is 784 pages long, it is meticulously structured and paced, and reading it is an enthralling experience of total immersion in Tartt’s vision and voice. A beautiful and important book.

More Arts & Books in this month's Prospect:

All this really happened: Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews excels at bringing the past to life—even if he fails to capture the richness of Jewish culture in medieval Europe, says Robert Alter (£)

False starts and red herrings: Thomas Pynchon’s cult novels are magnificently complex but ultimately empty, says Jennifer Szalai (£)

Lessons about ourselves: Reviewing Ian Buruma’s new book, Zero Hour: A History of 1945, Samuel Moyn argues we must see the aftermath of the Second World War in terms of institutions, not just individuals (£)

Paul Klee’s distorted reality: An exhibition at Tate Modern shows Klee’s unique combination of realism and surrealism, says James Woodall (£)