From un­der­belly to up­per classes

Tartt’s Dick­en­sian doorstop­per gal­lops through var­i­ous worlds

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Jill Wil­son

IT’S been 11 years since Donna Tartt’s last novel, The Lit­tle Friend, but she clearly hasn’t just been sit­ting back, eat­ing bon­bons and read­ing her good re­views in the in­terim.

Ev­i­dence of that is in the sheer bulk of the Mis­sis­sippi-born au­thor’s third novel, an al­most-800-page doorstop­per.

But it’s not just the book’s length that in­di­cates Tartt’s work ethic. Like Eleanor Cat­ton’s re­cent Booker Prize win­ner, The Lu­mi­nar­ies, The Goldfinch is a vast Dick­en­sian tale. It ranges from New York to Las Ve­gas to Am­s­ter­dam, peo­pled by Up­per East Side swells, an­tique fur­ni­ture deal­ers, de­gen­er­ate gam­blers, art thieves and drug ad­dicts.

It com­bines Tartt’s vivid but literary sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties — the pace seems to gal­lop along even when lit­tle is hap­pen­ing — with a quite daz­zlingly de­tailed ex­plo­ration of var­i­ous worlds, both un­der­belly and up­per class.

Theo Decker’s life is de­railed at age 13 when his mother is killed in an ex­plo­sion at New York’s Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum and he finds him­self in pos­ses­sion of a price­less work of art, The Goldfinch of the ti­tle — a real paint­ing, one of the few re­main­ing by 17th­cen­tury artist Carel Fabri­tius, a stu­dent of Rem­brandt who was, not co­in­ci­den­tally, also killed in an ex­plo­sion. Like a clas­sic Dick­ens pro­tag­o­nist, Theo is essen­tially or­phaned (his fa­ther is an al­co­holic who de­serted the fam­ily). He goes to live with the Bar­bours, the posh par­ents of a school friend, and in a Dick­en­sian turn of events, finds him­self led to Ho­bart and Black­well, a shabby, over­stuffed an­tique store run by an old-world, courtly fur­ni­ture re­storer called James Ho­bart.

(De­spite the fact that The Goldfinch is set in the present, it’s some­times sur­pris­ing when a char­ac­ter pulls out an iPod — the at­mos­phere is so Vic­to­rian.)

Un­der Ho­bie’s tute­lage, he be­gins to de­velop an ap­pre­ci­a­tion and an eye for an­tiques, to know his Chip­pen­dales from his Hep­pel­whites.

All the while, The Goldfinch sits, its theft undis­cov­ered by au­thor­i­ties, beat­ing like Poe’s tell-tale heart. Theo can’t fig­ure out how to re­turn it, and re­ally, he doesn’t want to, as it’s his last con­nec­tion to his beloved mother.

It goes with him to Las Ve­gas, when his long-ab­sent fa­ther, a leather-skinned cock­tail wait­ress on his arm, un­ex­pect­edly swoops in and takes him to live on the out­skirts of Sin City.

It’s there he meets Boris, a Ukrainian boy who’s lived all over the world and who com­bines a strangely adorable open­ness with a dan­ger­ous propen­sity for trou­ble-mak­ing. He uses his guile­less man­ner and charm to ma­nip­u­late those around him; when Theo leaves him be­hind to re­turn to New York, we can be sure it isn’t the last we’ll see of him.

Even­tu­ally, Theo’s felo­nious in­stincts lead him to an un­der­world of art thieves and forg­eries, cul­mi­nat­ing in a thrilling, if some­what pre­pos­ter­ous, ca­per in Am­s­ter­dam.

Tartt’s sense of place is un­matched and cin­e­matic; you can see and prac­ti­cally smell the book’s lo­ca­tions: dusty, mag­i­cal Ho­bart and Black­well, rich with the odour of var­nish and wood shav­ings from the workshop; the aus­tere el­e­gance of the Bar­bours’ apart­ment; the air-con­di­tioned empti­ness of Ne­vada.

The strong­est sec­tion is the one set in Ve­gas, where Theo and Boris do lit­tle but eat junk food, en­gage in petty thiev­ery and drink.

Tartt cap­tures the odd, pow­er­ful con­nec­tion be­tween th­ese teen boys, dou­bly adrift be­cause of both who they are — for­eign out­casts — and where they live — a sere sub­di­vi­sion rav­aged by the hous­ing mar­ket bust, with bleached-out back­yards and de­serted play­grounds, where even the pizza de­liv­ery guy won’t visit.

Theo’s life is, in the main, not a happy one, and it is oc­ca­sion­ally weary­ing to suf­fer with him through another calamity, another druggy haze, another ill­ness.

But the way Tartt bal­ances a per­sonal story about art, beauty and sor­row with a grip­ping tale of sus­pense is so enthralling, it smoothes over any rough patches.

Jill Wil­son is a Free Press copy ed­i­tor.


The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt Lit­tle Brown and Com­pany, 784 pages,


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