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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.