The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides are two of the great American novels of the 21st Century. Both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; to that brace you can now add The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It picked up the prize this year and, oh, how richly deserved it is.
In comparative terms it is closer to Eugenides’ masterpiece than McCarthy’s stripped down telling of The Road. Like Middlesex this a story that broadly sweeps over time and must be considered one of the ‘Great American Novels’.
Whilst storytelling is at the very core of this magnificent novel, characterisation and profound messaging are vital cogs in its success.
It concerns the first 30 or so years of the life of Theo Decker, a young boy who has his first love, his mother, tragically torn away from him in a terrorist (we assume) bombing of an American Museum (the Met we assume) when he was a kid. In the process Theo grabs from the ruins a canvas that has been freed from its frame as a result of the explosion. The canvas (a board actually) is a painting of a captive Goldfinch. Small, unpretentious, delicate but delightful and considered a true masterpiece by famed (but obscure) 17th Century Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.
His new found ‘ownership’ is to underscore the remainder of Theodore Decker’s life.
What follows is as engrossing a tale as you’ll ever read. It tells Decker’s life, told throughout in the first person, in a series of extended chapters. Each one dealing with an episode in his existence that is forever uncertain riding it out, as he does, on an absurdly thin line between happiness and chaos.
Although he has a father, he is estranged and only enters the story a quarter of the way in. By then we have established a complex character in Theo and his geeky school friend, Andy, Andy’s family who ‘adopt’ him as he has nowhere to go and his, frankly bonkers, Ukranian school mate, Boris, who becomes a central character in the novel.
But aside from Theo and Boris the two main protagonists are his deceased mother (who suffuses everything Theo does in life) and The Goldfinch. This chained bird is a metaphor for Theo’s life. As, like the bird, he is imprisoned by fate and can’t ever really find true happiness.
His love life is, to say the least, complicated and utterly unfulfilling. I won’t spoil it by revealing the complexities of his relationships but suffice it to say they form a key subplot in the tale.
What Donna Tartt does (always does) is craft a fine plot but then weave it together with extraordinary depth of descriptive prose and utterly believable characterisation and dialogue; although huge swathes of the book are dialogue-free, as we get to grips with how Theo is feeling about the latest episode he finds himself in. Yet the book clips along at a rate of knots that keeps you wanting more and more – that’s some feat for a novel of 864 pages. (Donna Tartt may not be prolific but each of her novels is two or three of anyone else’s.)
This is a book fundamentally about love and the nature of good and evil. One might imagine Boris on one shoulder horned and trident-bearing; Polly, Hobie and Theo’s mother on the other festooned in white.
And Theo is torn.
The grief that suffuses his whole being at the loss of his beloved (no, truly adored) mother never leaves the book and it’s only Boris’ honest, frank joie de vivre and adherence to his own highly unorthodox rule book for life that adds sparkle and happiness, of a sort, to the young Theo’s life: the drink and drugs help too, but they are merely a cushion for Theo’s profound grieving.
This novel is a rare and precious thing. A story that is almost without blemish. A thing of startling beauty and an absolute must read for anyone who ever enjoyed the art of storytelling; because here it is in all its wonder.
This is a masterclass in writing that stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest storytelling that America has ever produced.
The movie could, and should, be epic. My money’s on David Fincher (no pun intended) directing it and sweeping the boards at the Oscars.