It had been a gift – and a thoughtful one – yet it perched on my bookshelf for the best part of a year, intimidating me. Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” weighs in at 800-odd pages of reasonably small print, which is meaty by anyone’s reckoning, and I knew it wasn’t going to be tackled in a weekend. Tiny bird, enormous book. Like an ascent on Everest, or the running of a marathon, I would need to approach this in a resolute, professional manner, and arrive at the starting line with loins girded (whatever that actually means) and feeling seriously on my game.
But something else happened instead. I got ill. Not gravely – just the inconvenience of a chest infection, but it left me needing to take several days of bed-rest, and at the same time presented me with a window of time in which to tackle the book without any distractions, except for preparing occasional cold and flu remedies and wheezing painfully.
I hardly needed that long, when it came down to it. Right from the first few pages, I was completely hooked on the story of young Theo Decker’s unlikely and traumatic encounter with the titular work of art by Carel Fabritius, his opportunistic acquisition of it, and his subsequent struggles to both reconcile his situation and simply survive. I scarcely noticed being ill, and may have even given the impression of faking it! It’s a real gift to fall so utterly under the spell of a writer and their universe, and to be in that rare situation of wanting to devour the pages greedily, whilst also trying to make them last as long as possible.
“The Goldfinch” is one of those novels that inspires me to write, makes writing seem like the only thing worth doing, and it makes me want specifically to write novels, to create worlds equally as tangled, rich and real (ditto just about anything by David Mitchell). Yet at the same time, I find its scope and inventiveness quite daunting. I can’t imagine ever being able to produce anything quite so breath-taking, so daring. The consequent temptation to avoid even trying is one I’m constantly fighting off.
I came to “The Goldfinch” knowing nothing about it, about the stir it had caused when first published, not only for being Tartt’s first novel for over ten years. I had previously read “The Little Friend” and been impressed by it. Reading back now through some reviews of “The Goldfinch”, it strikes me how divided opinions have been about it, how polarised the views of its readers, bearing in mind its status as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
It is certainly not without its flaws. It’s a little flabby and over-indulgent in places, but hardly surprising given its length. I’ve never been to New York, never mind lived there, but using chance encounters on its streets to drive the plot more than once feels contrived – or perhaps it really is just like one big village? And the last few pages try too hard to explain what the ‘message’ is behind all that has gone before, all of Theo’s experiences.
But what struck me most about the critical reviews of the book was the debate about how ‘literary’ – or otherwise – it is; whether it is ‘grown-up’ enough to be considered truly great, and if it isn’t, whether it should therefore be considered terrible. This argument seems unnecessary to me. I either enjoy reading something, or I don’t, and the novels I most enjoy reading are usually those that sweep me up and along with their audacity and ambition. I’m just amazed by the imagination of writers – and also film-makers – who can invent a version of reality so convincing and absorbing, and have the courage to do so.