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

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist