The Big Click’s Inaugural “Mother-in-Law Review Corner”: Fresh, for 2014!
Donna Tartt’s first highly successful page-turner of a novel, The Secret History, is long, almost 600 pages long. Her most recent, The Goldfinch, is even longer, close to 800 pages, and weighing in at 2.4 pounds.
I enjoyed The Goldfinch very much, in parts. Those parts that I did enjoy propelled me through the whole book, in spite of the many longueurs which mar this work.
The novel starts on the day when Theo Decker, aged 13, and his mother are among the innocent victims of a horrendous act of terrorist violence in the heart of Manhattan; not 9/11—this is a fictional attack, but a similar atrocity. Though Theo survives, and is the book’s protagonist and narrator, his mother is killed. It is during this crisis that Theo’s life becomes intertwined with a priceless, tiny, exquisite seventeenth century painting (an actual painting) by Fabritius, The Goldfinch.
The novel traces the following 14 years of Theo’s life, forever changed by the violence. We experience through his eyes his friendships, re-locations, and his dramatic and even lurid adventures involving drugs, professional criminals, and an armored heist.
The passages that describe Theo’s thoughts early on in the book just prior to the bombing, together with his reactions & conversation with a dying stranger upon regaining consciousness, are some of the most effective and memorable in the book. These are paragraphs filled with a plethora of significant detail, which seem justified by the boy’s heightened, febrile sense of awareness in his shocked state. It is therefore disappointing to find the very same attention to detail given to almost everything and everyone else in the novel, in every other location, from the manners of a high school teacher in Las Vegas to the purchasing of wedding china in Tiffany’s, from methods of restoring eighteenth century furniture to the décor of a cafe in the backstreets of Amsterdam. Such a relentless accumulation of facts and impressions seems to place the reader into the glaring light of Salvador Dali’s desert paintings rather than into the muted light of the Dutch masters; an ambience more surreal than realistic.
There is no doubt, though, that Donna Tartt is a masterly storyteller. At her best, her writing is smooth and unobtrusive. She creates a strong sense of place, as well as a handful of strong characters and relationships, including Theo’s mother, and the mysterious Bosie. Among the insignificant details there are also nuggets of fascinating information and many evocative passages; she has an unerring ear for the charm language, specifically of the Slavonic accent. Her character Boris, with his Russian-Ukrainian-American voice is a tour de force. His language is delightful and infectious. As Theo explains:
Boris met a girl names Kotku; and everything changed. The name Kotku (Ukrainian variant: Kotyku) makes her sound more interesting than she was; but it wasn’t her real name, only a pet name (Kitty cat, in Polish) that Boris had given here. Her last name was Hutchins; her given name was actually something like Kylie… Much as I enjoyed the gentle humor of Kotku’s name (“Boris was so insistent about calling her Kotku that people at school—teachers, even—had begun calling her Kotku as well”) in this same sentence, Tartt also irritates with her wordiness, giving us two further possible given names for Kotku “Keiley or Kaylee.” Superfluous. But the author wins me back. In the same humorous vein, Theo’s dog (originally belonging to his father’s girlfriend) was originally known as Popper, but becomes forever Popchick after meeting Boris. The moment when Boris & Popchick meet again after many years apart is both hilarious and moving, wonderful and unforgettable.
But the drawbacks are there too. I waited with increasing impatience for the painting The Goldfinch, (which incidentally is currently on loan to the Frick Museum in Manhattan until mid-January 2014) notable for its delicacy, vivid clarity and tiny dimensions, to infuse the novel with its particular atmosphere. While perhaps intended as suspense, which is of course part of Donna Tartt’s skill-set in creating page-turners, I found the painting’s absence (while explicable in terms of the plot) increasingly disappointing. It contributed to a sense of hollowness at the heart of the book. Eventually there are some lovely descriptions of the painting and some analysis of its effects. I enjoyed these, but with a sense of exasperation that I’d had to wait so long, and that the effect of the painting remained isolated from the novel as a whole. I’d expected the painting’s role in the novel to be transformative, but it is not, as though by the end of the long novel, even the author no longer had the patience to tie everything together.
Further suspense is created as we await two honest conversations, which it seems will provide the books denouement. The first between Theo and the antique-shop owner, Bosie, a mysterious benevolent figure and Theo’s savior; the second with the red-headed girl, who Theo has loved since becoming aware of her just before the catastrophic explosion of which they are both victims. We await the resolution of their relationships with intensity, but ultimately are kept waiting too long, and the build-up dissipates without a powerful enough resolution.
Is The Goldfinch a suspenseful crime novel, or a thoughtful literary novel of the psychological effects of post-traumatic stress disorder upon a young boy’s development? Is it a Condition of Post 9/11 America novel similar to those realistic 19th century Condition of England novels that explore the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution in England? The Goldfinch is an attempt to be all of these things. It is not a complete success, though it has memorable scenes and characters, and will have many devotees.
However, inside The Goldfinch is trapped a tauter, leaner, better novel longing to be released, as the tiny, chained wild bird in Fabritius’ painting must also dream of being set free. —MF
As a fan John Harvey, Pater Robinson and Elizabeth George, I’m always on the lookout for new, UK-set detective novel series of equal quality. It was therefore with interest that I approached Simon Parke’s A Psychiatrist, Screams (An Abbot Peter Mystery), but I was soon to find that the book failed to pass the automatic litmus tests that I apply to any book as I browse in a bookstore or library.
At first glance the title, which blends detective fiction with both psychiatry and religion, appealed to me. It hints at Iris Murdoch territory. But a closer look reveals an unnecessary comma in the title: A Psychiatrist, Screams. Whether clever or simply wrong, I felt a strong urge to re-shelve the book.
I persevered, hoping for the best, only to be given pause by another error in the first chapter, a chapter of just 5 lines. “And while everyone saw the murderer & knew the murderer, no one knew their name.” Gender neutral pronoun-use may sometimes be desirable, but here the plural ‘their’ is a glaring pronoun antecedent error. I therefore found myself participating in an inadvertent game of “spot the error,” disrupting my reading flow, and rendering any suspension of disbelief impossible.
The following chapter is set, without transition, in 14th century Persia, the language a disconcerting blend of the stiffly formal:
“Then in what manner have you regarded death?” asked the poet in his flowery silks of red and gold.
And the colloquial:
“Not as a favour, that’s for sure.”
There’s a mismatch of register here, that cannot be accounted for by the different personalities of the two characters.
It seems that this author has not thought carefully enough about his sentences, their construction or timbre. This became even more evident as I continued to read (though I made it only a little further).
This author is full of ideas; indeed, falls over them sometimes, contradicting himself on the page as he goes along. This is distracting, and half baked. Much assiduous editing and rewriting is needed; this book is not ready.
By the middle of Chapter 3, with its prolonged delay in identifying the characters, I regret to say I’d had enough. The book was back on the shelf, my search still on for an enjoyable read. —MF