THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 2013)

After her two previous bestsellers, Donna Tartt is in the enviable position of being able to call all the shots with any publisher.

She is like an esteemed movie director who knows her work is never going to be subjected to unwanted cuts.

Moreover, she has established herself a writer who works slowly and meticulously, preferring quality to quantity.

A book every decade is her current rate of production and she expresses no desire to change this. She says she’ll be content if her life work consists of five big novels.

Constant rewriting and self editing are among the reasons why she is not more prolific. In a recent BBC interview, Tartt describes how she decided to scrub 8 months work after realising she had taken the plot down a wrong track.

You can well imagine why, after labouring for so long, she would resist any further editing suggestions. However, I can’t help feeling that this degree of total control is a double-edged sword. The Goldfinch is a novel that cries out for some bold editing and in my view it is at least 200 pages too long.

In the fifth and final section (The Gentleman’s Canal) the protagonist,Theo Decker, is whisked from New York to Amsterdam so that we end in the place where the novel begins. The violent events and encounters with a criminal underground are so at odds with the rest of the novel that I wonder how Tartt could have been blind to the fact that this was another ‘wrong track’.

The novel is prefaced by a quote from Albert Camus : “The absurd does not liberate, it binds”. The famous opening of Camus’ L’Éstranger (The Outsider) is “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know” which immediately establishes the cold detachment of the anti-hero, Meursault.

Theo,the first person narrator of Tartt’s novel begins in quite a different tone : “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years” and it is soon clear that, unlike Meursault, a mother’s death here signifies a deeply traumatic and a formative experience for this American boy.

Donna Tartt - a sharp dresser in need of a sharp editor.

Donna Tartt – a sharp dresser in need of a sharp editor.

The dramatic nature of the death in what we can only assume is a terrorist attack on Manhattan”s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the subject of the novel’s memorable opening section. This sequence is every bit as brilliant and remarkable as the tragically absurd death at the beginning of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

However, rather than being compared to other modernist fiction, The Goldfinch has, with good cause, frequently been labelled as Dickensian. The epic sweep of the picaresque story and vivid characterisations take place in the contemporary world but also have a timeless quality.

Theo’s infatuation with Pippa could be likened to the unattainable Estella in Great Expectations ; the similarity between her name and the protagonist (Pip) from Charles Dickens’ great novel is surely no coincidence.

Equally it’s not hard to find parallels in Dickens’ fictional world to Theo’s wayward companion Boris or his kindly guardian Hobie. And just like Victorian (melo)dramas, you could easily imagine Tartt’s novel  being serialised in a weekly journal with each installment ending with a ‘to be continued’ cliffhanger.

And yet, while Dickens’ best work was motivated by a sense of social and moral outrage,  this broader vision is largely absent from The Goldfinch. Dickens was keen to expose topical issues like the plight of orphans, the unjust divide between rich and poor, the failure of state education or the corruption of the legal system. In contrast, Tartt says she wants us to consider broad ranging questions like ‘What is love?’ or ‘What is the good life?’ and within the novel’s sprawling structure such themes tend to get lost.

It is never entirely clear why the stolen 1654 oil painting of The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius should be so central to the plot. Frequently, I asked myself why Theo didn’t just return it anonymously to the museum.

The reverence for this Dutch painting and a quote from Nietzsche (“We have art in order not to die from the truth”) ties in with the world of antique restoration Theo enthusiastically embraces. In general, art objects seem to represent stability in an unstable world where death casts a constant shadow. Perhaps it is also significant that the goldfinch in Fabritius’ masterpiece is chained to its perch. This tethering of a ‘free’ bird could be construed as a comment on the illusory nature of freedom.

At its conclusion, Tartt clumsily flags up the moral of the tale in a manner that suggests a fear that we dear readers might not otherwise get it:
“I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it”.

Donna Tartt’s skills as a writer and storyteller are beyond dispute and two-thirds of The Goldfish are brilliant and fully deserving of The Pulitzer Prize it earned her. However, it is certainly not without serious flaws and she should have had the courage and humility to entrust her labour of love to a skilled editor.

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