Little Brown £20.00

Review: The Goldfinch, By Donna Tart

 

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s keenly anticipated third novel, was inspired by Carel Fabritius’s painting of the same name – a mini-masterpiece whose fusion of hyper-realism and trompe l’oeil blurs the lines between art and life. Tartt’s Goldfinch attempts something similar, but does so by expanding Fabritius’s canvas a trillion per cent. Whereas the painting is modest (the goldfinch is no bigger than a goldfinch), the novel is vast: 771 pages. Yet, despite its scale, this extraordinary work manages to remain intensely intimate, thanks largely to Tartt’s microscopic powers of description. The Goldfinch exults in using three adjectives where one might suffice. The effect in the opening pages is challenging but oddly gripping, as if fictional time has slowed to that of real life.

The novel progresses by exploring how matters of a moment unfurl unpredictably over time. For our narrator, 13-year-old Theodore Decker, this begins with the shock of an explosion: a terrorist bomb destroys the wing of a New York museum. The device deftly reminds us of Fabritius’s own death almost four centuries before, setting in place what Theo later describes as a “dreamlike mangle of past and present”. Tartt’s forensic prose is intent on tracing the unforeseeable consequences of the museum blast – not only for the characters who were present, but those yet to appear. 

Theo and his mother arrive in front of Fabritius’s masterpiece just in time for the detonation. Theo survives. His mother does not. Disorientated, he crawls through the rubble, comforts a dying elderly man, who passes him a ring and Fabritius’s priceless painting, which he keeps. Tartt is brilliant at portraying how vulnerable young lives are to sudden shocks, and especially to the sudden death of a loved one.

Almost every teenager in the story has suffered parental loss of one form or another, fitting for a novel that consciously echoes the realist novels of the 19th century. Theo’s journey towards adulthood contains hints of David Copperfield (little of that Holden Caulfield crap, though) and a remixed Great Expectations. There are violent fathers, kindly paternal surrogates, stern but caring lawyers, wild but loyal best friends, and competing love interests blessed with different Dickensian ideals.

Tartt isn’t pastiching the realist novel so much as updating it for our times. Her own version is filtered through existentialism, the Beats, and Frank O’Hara’s closely observed verse. This synthesis of old and new is made flesh when Theo learns furniture restoration from his genial guardian, Hobie. Hobie updates “ancients and honorables”, working “by hand like one of the old masters”. The resulting hybrid skirts originality and imitation, confuses what is genuine and fake. Tartt shines a neon light on all this during a wonderful, wild section in Las Vegas. Here even magic is an illusion: Theo is re-cast as Harry Potter by his friend Boris, neither quite realising they are really Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Like Fabritius, Tartt’s conceit is to create a work of art that strives to be realistic, but knows that the harder it tries, the more its contrivances are exposed. The Goldfinch teases with its own artifice: Theo’s mother is a model who takes a bad photograph; his temporary foster family stage themselves like “Broadway plays”; Tartt puns repeatedly on the word “picture”.

This self-consciousness isn’t empty meta-fiction any more than Theo is a post-modern unreliable narrator. Instead, his close reading of reality enacts the gradual revelations of his unspoken story. Initially, we take it on faith that he’s a bright kid with a keen eye and vivid visual imagination. But gradually, holes in his narration begin to appear. Who is Jerome? Why has Theo failed to mention his drug dependence? And just what is all that detail covering up?

Theo’s skill at “misdirection” inspires some cunning plot twists, but the real mystery is revealed to be his enduring grief and guilt for his parents. In this, the slow accumulation of Tartt’s obsessive narration becomes profoundly moving. The Goldfinch asks how humans facing the “fundamental chaos and uncertainty of the world” restore themselves after loss. By burying problems, or by searching for the sustaining consolations of love, art and friendship? This meditation contends with other questions. How do we measure value in a world where reality and representation are almost indivisible? How do we take responsibility for our actions when cause and effect seem ever more random and unfathomable? As one character observes: “The moral of the story is, who knows where it will all take you?”

At a time when so much literature is either contemptuous of plot or enslaved by it, The Goldfinch is a gripping page-turner and a challenging, beautifully written account of modern life. Moving but unsentimental, funny without being trite, all human life is here. Or at least, quite a lot. The Goldfinch will doubtless be a contender for one of 2013’s best novels.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all