Unwrapping Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

Here it (finally) is: Donna Tartt’s latest odyssey of love and loss, guilt and triumph; celebrated in such language as “lyrical”, “Dickensian” and “the darling of the internet”; compared with novels like The Catcher in the Rye and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The Goldfinch recounts the trials of Theo, a young man of misfortune, after the death of his mother in a terrorist bombing on a New York art museum, and his kind-of-accidental theft of a priceless painting.

The book is Tartt’s first release in 11 years, and after ploughing through its 800-odd pages, I can’t say I’m surprised it’s taken her this long. The novel is clearly the product of colossal effort. Every object, person, landscape, feeling has every detail wrung out in exhaustive description.

And it can be beautiful. It often is. Tartt’s prose fulfills most aspects of this “lyrical” quality it’s so often attributed by critics and fans (though the rhythm is at times disturbed by a particularly cryptic metaphor, a twisted and lengthy sentence, or the odd typo that escaped editing). Yes, The Goldfinch is very simile-heavy: not my usual cuppa tea, and a few seem nonsensical when reread, but the vast majority do help create a richly painted view of the world through Theo’s eyes. Comparing a character to a polar bear, for instance, delivers a drop of whimsical delight.

Thematically, the scope of ideas is so broad that it takes a while to get some idea of what Tartt is getting at. Furthermore, as the mass of explicit metaphor colours this world, it also clouds our eyes from the implicit and sustained metaphor—so much so that the point of the book isn’t really confirmed until the final pages, in a series of monologues from various characters and the narrator. I’m not really into monologues, or sermonising, but what the hey, we were looking for some clarity and here it is on a platter. If you’re into platters.

So, like a lot of things, The Goldfinch is engaging, but also a trial. Inspired but slightly overdone. Read it fast—appreciate the rhythm and images conjured by the prose, fall in love with each vivid character—and you’ll be happy. Read it carefully, and you might just come away a little more enlightened.

There’s no doubt The Goldfinch deserves one read, but it really requires two.

donna-tartt-the-goldfinch-book-cover

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