Donna Tartt likes to start her books with a death. In The Secret History (1992), the victim was a college student called Bunny. The prologue made it clear that our narrator had blood on his hands and the book’s structure – crime first, explanation later – suited the narrator’s obsession with classical notions of predetermination and fate. In Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), the opening image was of another body. On Mother’s Day in Sixties Mississippi, a nine-year-old boy is found ‘hanging by the neck from a piece of rope’.
In The Goldfinch, Tartt’s first novel for 11 years, the plot-enabling disaster is an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our young narrator, Theo, manages to survive the blast, but his beloved mother is killed. The writing is wonderfully atmospheric here and the image of Theo staggering through the wounded museum, searching for an escape route among ‘dim oils’ and ‘dulled gilt’, ‘galleries of Oceanic art, totems and dugout canoes’, encountering the banal horror of a woman staring ‘blankly at the ceiling … the top of her head missing’, reverberates throughout the rest of the book. It will take Theo many years to begin to come to terms with the loss of his mother, and also to decide what to do with the other burden the event has left him with: a small Dutch masterwork called ‘The Goldfinch’. The authorities assume it has been destroyed.
After its opening explosion, The Goldfinch settles into a calm account of Theo’s development as a teenager. This lasts for about half of the book’s 784 pages. In its calm first-person hindsight and careful tracing of an orphaned boy’s development from innocence to experience, from manipulated child to manipulating adult, encountering along the way eccentric lawyers with names like Mr Bracegirdle, this part of The Goldfinch strongly recalls Great Expectations, a book which, in a deft touch, Tartt has Theo narrowly miss out on reading. (His half of the class get stuck studying Walden instead.)
As the novel follows Theo’s path into the world of work and pursuit of a girl named Pippa – the protagonist of Great Expectations made feminine – it morphs into a very different beast, resembling at its best the kind of darkly intelligent suspense novel that made Patricia Highsmith’s name. Theo is slipping inexorably into drug addiction and the New York art underworld. The prose dutifully fragments to reflect his mental disintegration, images coming in shards and definite and indefinite articles increasingly abandoned (‘Blood smear on my cuff. Big fat drops’; ‘Itching, itching. Skin on fire’; ‘Cordite smell and deafening echo that drove me so deep inside my skull’). Occasionally the imagery becomes wilfully obtuse (‘White wings of tumult. Running jump into the infinite’) and at other times it seems to reach for the pulsing paranoia of Don DeLillo (‘in a modern city, this half-invisible grain of terror, disaster, jumping at car alarms, always expecting something to happen’). In any case, Theo by now has good cause to be paranoid. The authorities have begun to realise that the painting may have survived the blast after all.
As Theo’s secret starts to slip from his grasp, he learns the ropes in an antiques shop, selling clever fakes that involve splicing old furniture with new. Tartt seems to have some self-reflexive fun with this. ‘I knew’, Theo tells us, ‘how to draw people’s attention to the extraordinary points of a piece, the hand cut veneer, the fine patination, the honorable scars, drawing a finger down an exquisite cyma curve … in order to lead the eye away from reworked bits.’ He also advises that it’s sensible to place the strongest pieces in the well-lit front of the shop, hiding the cruder work in the shadowy muddle at the back. The early Met museum explosion remains the book’s best scene and, as the story starts to stretch plausibility, Theo’s post-traumatic stress disorder offers a decent reason to track back to it.
The ‘exquisite cyma curve’ of the furniture Theo sells is what Hogarth called ‘the line of beauty’, and there’s more than a little of Alan Hollinghurst’s Nick Guest in the adult Theo, pleasure-seeking and unhappy, addicted to surface grace. Dozens of other possible references to novels pop up in the course of the book. Theo thinks of exchanges as ‘scripted’ and moments as ‘staged’, and characters are described in terms of their resemblance to other characters in other books. The most surprising of these allusions comes when a childhood friend of Theo nicknames him ‘Potter’ on account of his apparent physical similarity to J K Rowling’s boy wizard. Forget Great Expectations, the novel seems to say. This is the story of a bespectacled, gifted, orphaned boy grieving the tragic death of his parents, growing into a risky new maturity, seeking to overcome adversities in a world not quite his own… Ring any bells?
You have to admire Tartt’s sense of play here but, by the end of the book, when the plot begins to creak and Theo gets into gunfights with big-league art criminals, it’s not altogether helpful to have Daniel Radcliffe in mind. The painter behind The Goldfinch is interested in ‘tak[ing] [an] image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it’, and so is Tartt. But the self-consciousness sometimes obscures the more interesting questions this big and pleasurable book has to offer, namely whether ‘the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow’, and whether the greatest paintings and novels ever have a hope of healing real-life wounds.