The Goldfinch by Donna Tart: a very long, but engrossing book about a lost boy and a small painting

The Goldfinch is the third novel by American writer Donna Tartt, considered by many to be a literary genius.

Tartt’s two other books are The Secret History, an “inverted detective story” about a college murder, which was published to huge acclaim in 1992 when she was just 29.

This was followed by The Little Friend a mystery adventure novel set in Mississippi in the early 1970s that appeared in book stores in 2002.

The Goldfinch – an epic novel spanning 864 pages – was published in 2013.

By that you can tell that Tartt, who is now 58, painstakingly completed a book about once every 10 years (and we should expect no.4 soon!).

It also suggests an astonishing level of self-confidence and cerebral stamina – you really have to believe in what you are doing to keep going on with the same story and characters for a decade!

However, each monumental effort has paid off. Not only are Tartt’s books best sellers and generally admired by critics, but they have won numerous prizes: The Little Friend won the WH Smith Literary Award while The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“A beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart,” said the Pulitzer Prize judges of The Goldfinch.

It’s a pretty good summary of the novel, which begins in a hotel room in Amsterdam as 27-year-old Theodore Decker’s fever-ridden thoughts return to a fateful stormy morning in Manhattan 14 years ago and the last few hours he spent with is beloved mother.

When a storm descends on them, they seek shelter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb kills his mother a short while later.

Tartt’s description of the violent explosion and its aftermath are exquisite as she brings the terrible chaos and destruction to life on the page as if the reader is also there. Buried in the rubble, Theo finds himself in a “ragged white cave” with “swags and tatters dangling from the ceiling” and as the ground “tumbled and bucked up with heaps of a gray substance like moon rock”. It is descriptive writing at its finest.

Just as powerful and heart-wrenching are the scenes where Theo makes his way back to their empty, darkened apartment, to wait in vain for his mother, “her coffee cup, green glass from the flea market, with lipstick print on the rim” a reminder of her terrible absence.

Also a reminder of his mother, and a vital connection to his last moments with her is the The Goldfinch, a small painting by the 17th century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius that Theo has carried out of the wreckage with him.

The painting is of a “yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle”. Just before they were separated, Theo’s mother told him this little painting was “just about the first painting” she ever loved. There is also another parallel: Fabritius also died tragically young, caught in an explosion at the gunpowder magazine in Delft in Southern Holland.

I stepped back, to get a better look. It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself – its brightness, its alert watchful expression -made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.

The Gold Finch

The intriguing little painting, which uses an art technique called “Trompe l’oeil” (French for ‘deceive the eye’) to create the illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions, becomes a kind of living and breathing character in the life of Theodore Decker as he navigates his way as a lost young boy through adolescence into adulthood.

The painting connects him to the last conversation he had with his mother, and so he holds onto it tight over the next 14 years, keeping it hidden as first he lives with the Barbours, the wealthy, dysfunctional family of his bullied school friend Andy, before his absent father – a failed actor who mistreated his mother – appears on the scene with his girlfriend Xanadu and whisks Theo away to a housing estate on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Here he experiences the vast desert skies and becomes best friends with another of Tartt’s marvelous creations. a delinquent, enigmatic Ukrainian boy called Boris who entertains Theo with tales of his time in Humpty Doo in Australia’s Northern Territory and introduces him to alcohol and drugs.

The Goldfinch by Fabritius

Written in the first person, Tartt’s ability to get inside the head of a guilt-ridden 14-year-old boy dealing with the monumental loss of his mother and his bumpy journey towards adulthood is truly remarkable.

Thankfully though at 864 pages The Goldfinch is not just the story about a boy and his obsession with a painting that reminds him of his mother.

It also focuses in on relationships, and how we need people to get us through trauma, be it the muddled advice of Boris, or Hobbie, the quiet and patient Greenwich Village antique furniture dealer and restorer who becomes a pseudo father figure and mentor to Theo, when he makes it back to New York, after yet more traumatic events.

The Goldfinch may be long, but like Hanya Yanagihara’s epic, “A Little Life” it’s never dull. Each adventure is part of Theo’s journey towards lifting himself out of despair and to the realisation that “maybe even if we are not always glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s