Friday, February 28, 2014

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

28 February 2014

Life is catastrophe” – that certainly seems to be true for Theodore Dekker, the hero of Donna Tartt's third novel 'The Goldfinch'. Theo is 13 years old when a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York changes his life, as a terrorist bomb destroys a section of the museum and kills Theo's mother. Theo emerges from the wreckage carrying a famous painting, Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece 'The Goldfinch'. Theo's future becomes intertwined with the fate of the painting, and his journey from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam, through a succession of guardians, finding and losing friends and soulmates, is thrilling and emotional. 'The Goldfinch', which I read as an unabridged audio book narrated by David Pittu, is an epic work, even longer than 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). If Eleanor Catton was channelling Wilkie Collins, Donna Tartt is definitely a contemporary Charles Dickens. I felt her wonderful second novel 'The Little Friend' – one of my favourite recent American novels – created a Dickensian cast of characters. 'The Goldfinch' continues this approach, combining slightly exaggerated but entirely believable characters with a Dickensian coming of age plot. The orphaned Theo Dekker is a modern day Pip, David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. His best friend, Boris, is his Herbert Pocket – or maybe The Artful Dodger. Donna Tartt writes beautifully with the adult Theo's first person narration reflecting on his childhood in a way that makes you feel exactly what it must have been like for him. This is often a harrowing experience as you really feel Theo's pain, loneliness and despair. Tartt creates empathy rather than sympathy so that, even when Theo commits indefensibly stupid, cruel or criminal acts, you feel you would have done exactly the same in his position. But 'The Goldfinch' is not a miserable novel – it has a slow-burning thriller plot that builds to a terrifying climax. And there is a wonderful twist about three quarters of the way through, which I was terribly satisfied to have spotted when the seeds were planted much earlier in the story. 'The Goldfinch' is a long, and sometimes deliberately slow, novel but expertly constructed, beautifully written and well worth investing your time in.



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