Even though I was a good pupil, high grades, cared about my work, I hated school. I found the place cold and impersonal. It fostered cliques and stifled your individuality. Most of all I didn’t think the teachers cared about us as individuals. But there was one teacher that cared, that was Mr Jones, my form tutor and my GCSE History teacher. It helped that his was my favourite subject, but I think he felt that part of his job was not just to teach us to the test, as it were, but to educate us. And part of his education for me was to introduce me to things that have turned into some of my favourite things ever; a Billy Bragg tape, the Ken Loach film Land and Freedom and Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History. As a teenager, The Secret History equally baffled and bedazzled me (in fact, I must re-read it as an adult) and, crucially, left me wanting more. It was some years until Tartt’s next book, The Little Friend came out and although I can’t remember much about that one other than it was set in the Deep South and had something to do with coming of age, death and a box of snakes (!), I was suitably convinced that Donna Tartt is a brilliant author. As soon as The Goldfinch was published, I started to nag my local library to get a copy and then got myself on the reserve list. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long as I received a copy for Christmas (thank you, Chris).
Its a huge book, with a bit of a sprawling plot which is difficult to summarise without too many spoilers. In short, Theo Decker is involved in a terrorist attack on a New York art gallery in which his mother, to whom he is incredibly close, is killed. In the confusion, he steals a painting from the wall and spends the rest of his life racked with guilt, grief and bouts of depression or post-traumatic stress. He becomes a drug addict and becomes entwined with an unstable Russian, Boris, who is very nearly his undoing. He is offered salvation by furniture restorer Hobie, who is the only real stable father-figure in his life, but can’t resist the temptation of fraud.
I was quickly sucked in to Theo’s world and read the majority of its 772 pages in just two sittings. You quickly come to realise that Theo is not entirely likeable, but you excuse his transgressions, putting them down to the series of disappointments and disasters that make up his life, almost one after another. Considering I have very little in common with any of the characters and can not really imagine the universe they inhabit (wealthy uptown Manhattanites, sleazy Vegas gamblers, drug-addled German art thieves, for example), it is testament to Tartt’s skill as a writer that when reading you don’t miss a beat, everything is perfectly but effortlessly, imperceptibly in fact, described and explained.
I read a review in The Observer that called The Goldfinch “overlong and tediously Potteresque” which I think is grossly unfair and a huge misrepresentation. In fact, it very nearly put me off reading it but I am more than glad I ignored this niggle and went ahead nonetheless. Its brilliant.