Today, a month before its American release, Donna Tartt’s new novel ‘The Goldfinch’ is released in The Netherlands. Here you can read an English translation of one of the first Dutch reviews.
She’s already produced two literary supernovas: her 1992 debut novel, The Secret History, and The Little Friend, which demonstrated in 2002 that she had developed as a writer. Now, finally, we have her third novel, The Goldfinch. Expectations are sky-high.
This book starts very well, with an American in a hotel room in Amsterdam. It’s Christmas; he hasn’t been outside for days; he’s surrounded by newspapers reporting on a murder that seems to involve him. Theo Decker is his name. He is the narrator of the story and he leads us from his hotel room to a day in New York fourteen years earlier, the day his mother died. He is thirteen and goes into a museum with his mother to escape a downpour. While they are looking at an exhibition of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, a bomb explodes in the museum shop.
The passage that follows is splendid. How the disoriented Theo regains consciousness in the rubble, how he has an alienating conversation with a dying old man, how, due to a misunderstanding, he takes a small painting out of the museum with him - it’s described by Tartt in a hallucinatory passage that continues for pages without losing the tension. As she demonstrated in The Little Friend, Tartt is really good at this kind of long, suggestive interlude.
While Theo stumbles out of the museum, you think that this might well be Tartts’ best book. But we’ve only got to page sixty-six and there ‘re still another 850 to go. Alas, Tartt doesn’t manage to sustain the quality and the tension of the first pages.
There’s sufficient action and incident. The motherless Theo is cared for by the wealthy parents of a school friend till his father suddenly appears and takes him to Las Vegas. There he meets a Ukranian named Boris, who is going to play a major role in his life, including after he returns to New York. And all that time he is still in possession of the little painting he took out of the museum, The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. It will eventually lead him to the hotel room in Amsterdam.
But, but, but…. Things already start falling apart during the apocalyptic scene in the museum, when the dying old man gives Theo a ring and an address to which it must be delivered. Portentious last words, a task from a dying person: plot elements from old-fashioned adventure novels that give the contemporary story an archaic patina. Sometimes it’s as though you’re in a 21st century variant of Dickens, with all the various worlds Theo enters and the cliché-esque characters (rich mothers are standoffish and detached; East Europeans impulsive drunks; gangsters appear sweet). Tartt finesses this by referring to Dickens, but that, like other literary references in the book, has something dutiful about it: the novel never rises above itself. It remains just an adventure story, and one where the excitement gradually fizzles out.
Actually, there is just too much adventure: through all the incidents you lose track of the painting, which doesn’t succeed in functioning as the ‘red thread’ since it isn’t continuously visible in the background. And all the sub-plots and minor characters distract attention from the central issues of the story. Tartt’s earlier books had a certain unity of time and place which kept those thick tomes under control. The Goldfinch lacks this. And the fact that there’s a time-leap of eight years in the book doesn’t increase the unity much.
The plot also has a variety of villains but we don’t get to know them well enough to care about their fate. And that doesn’t just apply to the villains, by the way. When characters from the beginning of the story return in later sections (for instance, the sister of the schoolmate who becomes Theo’s fiancée) it turns out all too often that we haven’t really got to know them, so their imbroglios leave us pretty cold. That’s strange in such a thick book, with so much potential space for character development and personality description.
The novel ends with a remarkable lyrical passage in which Theo mulls over one piece of wisdom after the other, some of which are worth immortalising on Hallmark cards. Apparently Theo has become older and wiser after his adventures, but the reader hasn’t been able to trace that process very easily. Ultimately, we haven’t even been able to get to know the protagonist well enough.
Translated from Dutch by Niala Maharaj.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, translated by Sjaak de Jong, Paul van der Lecq and Arjaan van Nimweegen. De Bezige Bij, 925 pag.