goldfinchDonna Tartt’s third, Pullitzer Prize-winning novel begins with a remarkable extended set piece: 13-year-old Theo Decker accompanies his mother to an exhibition of Dutch Masters at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.  They are there to see her favourite painting, Carel Fabritius’ exquisite miniature The Goldfinch, depicting a plucky little songbird chained to its perch.

Just then a bomb blast rips through the museum. Separated from his mother, Theo comforts a dying elderly man who hands him an antique ring and urges him to salvage Fabritius’ masterpiece from the wreckage. The dazed teenager emerges with the painting in his rucksack and instructions to return the ring to a mysterious downtown address. He makes his way home to face an empty apartment and the dawning realisation that his mother is dead.

For half of the book’s 784 pages, Tarrt maps the emotional fallout of this catastrophe, movingly evoking the grief and loneliness of a motherless boy set adrift in a precarious world, his fate in the hands of a roster of unreliable adults.

After a brief stay with a family of wealthy Manhattanites, Theo ‘s long-absent, gambling-addicted father resurfaces and takes him to live in Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a Ukranian Artful Dodger who, playing Huck Finn to Theo’s Tom Sawyer, opens the door to petty theft and epic drink and drugs binges.

Through his journey from innocence to experience, Theo is sustained by the painting, which he keeps concealed in a pillow case. This “hidden, savage joy” exerts a talismanic power – a touchstone for all he has lost.

Tartt plays skilfully on the notion that character is fate: though Theo clings to the old world values of his mother, as symbolised by the painting, he has also inherited the self-destructive compulsions of his Fagin-like father. With the sure touch of master storyteller, Tartt makes us care desperately about this bright, good-natured but susceptible adolescent, whose inner life is rendered in such filigree detail it feels as if we are inhabiting his skin in real time.

Amidst the turmoil, Theo discovers a safe haven. Acting on the old man’s dying wish, he traces the ring back to an antiques shop, where he befriends Hobie, a genial furniture restorer, and Pippa, a fellow survivor of the blast, who sparks a lifelong romantic obsession.

While Tartt’s plot and characters consciously mimic Dickens, her style is impressively elastic. In rich, slow burning prose, she finds poetry in the argot and aesthetics of antiques, contrasting the cosy charm of Hobie’s curiousity shop with the sun-scorched dead zones of suburban Las Vegas. She lingers caressingly over rooms and objects with a Proustian delight in sensuality and memory, captures Theo’s thoughts on the fly with Kerouac-like streams of consciousness, and renders cityscapes and crowd scenes with the camera-eye lucidity of a DeLillo.  For the most part it’s impeccably controlled, though there are times when Tartt seems intoxicated by her own prose and fusses over extraneous detail, with writing that calls just a little too much attention to itself.

The book’s second half fast-forwards to Theo’s life as a twenty-something antiques dealer. As his obsession with the priceless painting sucks him into the criminal art underworld, the novel changes gear, turning from picaresque moral fable into highbrow thriller.

Needless to say, Tartt is more at home in the world of WASP New Yorkers than that of gun-packing hoods, and there’s a touch of pastiche to some of these later scenes. Her grip on character also loosens. Theo’s best friend Boris, for example, so three-dimensional as a teenager, becomes in adulthood a generic cipher reminiscent of Niko Bellic, the protagonist of the videogame Grand Theft Auto IV.  Even Theo, whose voice in the first part of the novel is as authentic as Holden Caulfield’s, becomes a little fuzzy around the edges.

The Goldfinch is both overlong and overwritten, and in its later stages the narrative begins to strain under the weight of its own devices.  More problematic is Tartt’s decision to end the novel with an overwrought cogitation on the book’s central metaphor – namely, Fabritius’ bird, a “little thimble of bravery” that for Tartt symbolises the resilience of art and its capacity to ward off the chaos and mutability of human existence.

“To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint,” says Theo.  Nevertheless, so anxious is Tartt to drive home her point that she hijacks her narrator’s voice with a lengthy treatise on the impulse behind the creative act, and by extension, her own work.

When Fabritius allowed us to see his brushstrokes, inviting us to ponder the paradox of his art, he deepened the mystery and complexity of the painting without breaking its spell.  Sadly, the self-referential conclusion to Tartt’s sporadically great novel is unnecessarily laboured and somewhat trite, undermining the brilliance that has gone before.

 

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