Francis Spufford is such a prolific and well-respected writer that it’s hard to believe that Golden Hill, his lively historical novel set in 18th-century New York, is his first work of fiction. Spufford is best known for his admirable career in non-fiction, including as the writer of the punchy and pithy Unapologetic, a very modern defence of Christianity, and I May Be Some Time, a cultural history of man’s relationship with the ice caps. How does such an expert in argument and history deal with adding the imaginary into the mix?
Golden Hill is a story of New York in 1746, a generation before the American Revolution. A certain Mr Smith arrives in town with a money order for £1,000, a huge amount, and won’t explain anything about it. What follows is a story that wreaths itself entirely in the style of an original 18th-century novel, from the vocabulary choices to the outrageous plot, which puts the hero through a variety of compromising positions.
In a contemporary literary landscape stuffed to the rafters with excellent historical novels, Spufford’s prose—in particular his dialogue—often veers unfashionably into pastiche. But, appropriately for a seasoned veteran of non-fiction, his writing is as well researched as you could wish for, and it’s not short of action. Spufford paints this New York in confident and vivid strokes, and it’s a treat to read a historical novel set in a time not often explored in modern British fiction—before America was identifiably American.