Donna Tartt's latest novel is smart, in both senses of the word

Ravishingly beautiful writing from a rock-star novelist.

Back in black: Donna Tartt. Image: Melanie Dunea/ CPI Syndication

 

The Goldfinch
Donna Tartt
Little, Brown, 784pp, £20

In the world of modern publishing, it is not enough to be able to write. If you want to make a living from books, it helps to be goodlooking, with rock-star cool and an intriguing backstory. The American novelist Donna Tartt qualifies on all counts and has the additional virtue of being fascinatingly taciturn. A handful of published interviews record a tantalising modicum of information.

She was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963 and educated at Bennington College, Vermont, where her classmates included the future “brat pack” novelist Bret Easton Ellis. Her first novel, The Secret History, a richly mannered Gothic murder story set at an imaginary college, became a bestseller when it was published in 1992. Ten years later, The Little Friend appeared. This, too, was a protracted essay in Gothic suspense, set in the American South with a bookish 12-year-old heroine bent on avenging the murder of her elder brother.

Another decade passed. Tartt’s admirers wondered fretfully whether she was suffering from writer’s block. Had she become a recluse? The more prosaic reality seems to be that it simply takes her ten years or so to complete her long and intricate fictions.

Her third novel, The Goldfinch, takes its title from a picture by the 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died aged 32 in 1654 when the Delft arsenal exploded, destroying the artist’s studio and much of his work. His little painting of a captive finch hangs in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. Tartt imagines for it a spectacularly more eventful career.

Her protagonist, Theo Decker, is 13 years old when he first sees Fabritius’s painting. He and his mother are on their way to an awkward disciplinary meeting at his school when they drop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the painting is on loan. As they admire it, Theo is distracted by the sight of a pretty, red-haired girl of about his age. He is wondering how to start a conversation with her when a terrorist bomb explodes.

Theo’s mother is killed. He, the red-haired girl – Pippa – and the painting of the goldfinch survive the blast. Of the three, the painting, which Theo, in shock, carries with him out of the museum, is the only one unscathed. Theo, unlike Pippa, is not physically hurt but his life begins to unravel after his mother’s death. He has no close relations; his raffish, alcoholic father has abandoned the family, leaving no address.

Just as it seems that Theo has found a home with the wealthy family of his nerdy school friend Andy, his father reappears. Dried out and with a new girlfriend, he offers a simulacrum of family stability plausible enough for the New York social services to agree that Theo should live with him in Las Vegas. There, Theo falls in with a Ukrainian artful dodger called Boris. The ensuing drug-strewn picaresque follows the two waifs as they make their way – accompanied, as though in a fairy tale, by the goldfinch and a fluffy white Maltese dog called Popper – from the compromised innocence of parentless adolescence to grown-up experience of the most dangerous and lurid kind.

Tartt’s style, though distinctively her own, resonates with the influences of other novelists. She shares with Dickens a fondness for orphans, grandiose coincidence (“God’s way of remaining anonymous”, as Boris puts it) and the swift, pungent delineation of minor characters. And, like Dickens, she is fascinated by impalpable qualities: innocence, love, value and the way these things are embodied in the tangible world.

Fabritius’s little painted bird; the emerald earrings that once belonged to Theo’s mother, which his fiancée carelessly flings into her bag as though they were loose change; a topaz necklace, left as a despairing love token inside Pippa’s boot: all of these speak of hope, endurance and a kind of defiant aesthetic order – an intriguing reversal of the critique of material acquisitiveness in the Henry James novel The Portrait of a Lady, devastatingly updated in Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

J K Rowling is a more surprising influence, although bookish children are one of Tartt’s leitmotifs. In The Goldfinch, Theo is nicknamed “Potter” by Boris because of his spectacles; and the novel’s transcendent moment, in which Theo, in extremis, dreams of seeing his dead mother reflected in a mirror, echoes the moment when Harry Potter sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised.

The Goldfinch is without doubt a beguiling novel. It is smart – in both the American and the British senses of that word – brilliantly readable, thrilling and touching. It contains some ravishingly beautiful writing about objects and about cities; New York and Amsterdam appear as characters in their own right. But there is a sense – engendered, perhaps, by the sheer length of time between novels – that Tartt’s ambition extends beyond the writing of very stylish, engaging and literate bestsellers. If that is the case, it will be interesting to see what she comes up with in ten years’ time.

Back in black: Donna Tartt. Image: Melanie Dunea/ CPI Syndication

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit