Little, Brown, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Book review: The Goldfinch, By Donna Tartt

A little picture of a bird drives this sumptuously furnished novel. Boyd Tonkin argues that it also guards the secret of its author's art

In 2006, Tom Lubbock – this paper's late and much-missed art critic – chose as his weekly "great work" a small painting from 1654 which hangs in The Hague's Mauritshuis museum. He picked "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius – who died that same year, when the Delft powder store exploded. In a typically brilliant essay, Lubbock showed how this modest depiction of a chained pet bird by the pupil of Rembrandt and teacher of Vermeer "holds before you the fundamental discrepancy of Western art".

At first sight it's a classic trompe l'oeil image, a "seamless illusion" of reality. Yet on closer inspection the little picture demands that you "notice the paint and its making". The life-like bird dissolves into "a mosaic of brushstrokes". Here I switch to the – very similar – interpretation of "The Goldfinch" in Donna Tartt's third novel. Her hero and narrator Theo, forever adrift after bereavement, spots that "you see the mark, the paint for the paint, but also the living bird". This art is both "the thing and not the thing", a token (as he puts it later) of that "slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint but also feather and bone". Tartt's novel not only dwells on the magical metamorphosis that fabricates a plausible reality from frank and manifest technique. The Goldfinch embodies it.

In her previous pair of once-a-decade blockbusters (The Secret History, 1992; The Little Friend, 2002), the Mississippi-born writer fused self-conscious literary pastiche with an uncannily intense evocation of place, mood and character. All that coexisted with a foreground mannerism, Gothic or even Baroque. The shadowed winter gloom that shrouded the campus cultists of her debut; the sinister Southern rankness that coiled around its follow-up: both owed a heavy debt to earlier literature. Yet, like the shackled bird, both sang with life. And both, of course, circled around death as the terminus of art and love but also - a motif further developed in The Goldfinch – as their ultimate justification.

Lavish and lush in décor and span (at 771 pages), as highly wrought, romantic and even sentimental as Tartt's detractors will fear and her much more numerous admirers will hope, The Goldfinch nonetheless turns on a few breathless "time-warp" moments. Prompted by art of one kind or another, these freezed frames halt the flow of life as beauty – or its cognate, love - "comes into being". Dickens has swiftly emerged as the kneejerk comparison for this novel. True, in many ways. But don't overlook another writer, also enchanted by the art of Delft: Proust.

A lonely observer, Theo has lived with his skittish, bohemian and – to him – utterly adorable mother in Manhattan since his deadbeat fantasist of an ex-actor dad finally walked out. During a visit to a special exhibition of Dutch painting at the Met that features "The Goldfinch", an attack by "homegrown" bombers kills her and plunges Theo into a slow-mo nightmare, staged with all the virtuoso illusionism of those pictures. In the bomb's aftermath, he steals the painting, catches sight of the bewitching Pippa, and succours a dying man, her courtly uncle, who gives him both a ring, and an address.

These precious leads pull the grief-stricken boy, now uneasily lodged with the wealthy, dysfunctional Barbour family, to an address in Greenwich Village and an old curiosity shop. At this antiques emporium, James Hobart ("Hobie"), benign business partner of the dead Welty, will take on the purely Dickensian role of surrogate father to the lost lad. In this "secret place where everything was alright", Theo learns from saintly Hobie the tricks of the furniture restorer's trade.

Tartt's own sumptuously varnished and polished prose makes us share his bliss in the craft of renewing old things enriched by the "variable, crooked, capricious" marks of time. Ornate, even sedate, the antiques-trade talk becomes a way for Tartt to explore her own kind of artifice, with its eerie renovation of vintage genres. All the while, Theo secretly cherishes the stolen painting, tangible proof of a "deep, blood-rocking harmony of rightness" beyond the "disorder and senselessness" of his loss.

Abruptly, antique yields to postmodern style. His feckless father, now a gambler shacked up with ageing babe Xandra, drags Theo off to Las Vegas and a two-year desert ordeal. The writing grows brighter, sharper, sassier, in keeping with Sin City's "hot mineral emptiness". Drugs, a constant companion from this point, start to dull Theo's pain and twist his judgment. But friendship with worldly-wise schoolmate Boris - the reckless Russian-Polish son of a mine engineer, whose wild-child foibles bring out all Tartt's joyful relish in human comedy - will anchor both his progress and the plot.

Theo flees back to New York via a vividly rendered Greyhound bus odyssey. The painted finch, talisman of a truth beyond the mess of life, goes into storage. Cue a long chronological break, and a second act in which the late-twenties Theo has converted the honest pastiche of Hobie's art into a semi-criminal source of big profits for their business.

In this Great Expectations-shaded section, Theo in his antic, pill-fuelled pomp falls into Manhattan high society. Despite his undimmed longing for elusive Pippa, he becomes engaged to a bland but sly Barbour daughter, Kitsey. Boris returns, now a wisecracking underworld fixer. The fate of the painting shifts in ways that no decent reviewer should disclose. A breakneck art-heist plot bundles Theo into a showdown at Christmas in snowy Amsterdam, another Gothic shrine with its "moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel".

Tartt is as generous with her hommages as with her high-calorie sentences. When Boris whisks Theo into chases soundtracked by quickfire chatter that blends profanity and philosophy, dope and Dostoyevsky, you think "Tarantino" - and then she sits them down to watch Kill Bill. She never hides the brushstrokes.

Yet, for all these allusive nudges, the magic endures. The novel lets us see, and feel, the real bird beyond the brush – or rather, the grief, and addictive yearning, behind its cabinet of curiosities. We witness all the working, and still she makes us care. Most readers will sink into the thick velvet embrace of Tartt's storytelling as cosily as into one of Hobie's near-genuine sofas. But for those who want to share the double vision, to slip attentively between luxurious illusion and overt craftiness, a deeper layer of pleasure awaits in The Goldfinch. In every sense, this is quite a piece of work.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us