Mother and son sitting on a bench, looking at the paintings around them
© Toby Whitebread

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, Little, Brown RRP£20 / $30, 784 pages

Donna Tartt’s three novels can all be described as psychological thrillers, but they are experienced as a sequence of highs and crashes, binges and hangovers. Characters are infatuated, confused, guilty, anxious; they suffer hallucinations and nightmares and nearly lose all control. In Tartt’s bestselling debut, The Secret History (1992), a clan of chic Classics students attending an elite Vermont college murder a local farmer while in the throes of a drug-induced bacchanal; throughout, characters distract themselves with Greek poetry and dinner parties, self-medicating with alcohol and sleeping pills. Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), set in 1970s Mississippi, also begins with a brutal death – a child hanged in the back garden – which leaves its large cast of characters either dazed with depression or manic with mistaken theories.

The narrator of Tartt’s new novel is Theodore Decker, a young New Yorker similarly drawn to emotional extremes and hedonism. The Goldfinch begins in an Amsterdam hotel where he is in hiding, delirious with flu and reading about his crimes in the local newspaper (like The Secret History, this is a back-to-front kind of detective story). The real action, however, is set in motion by a suspenseful episode in which a bomb is detonated in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where 13-year-old Theo and his mother have been viewing an exhibition of Dutch old masters. The bomb kills Theo’s mother and several others; the boy escapes but suffers a concussion which, in a sense, lasts for the rest of this 784-page novel, in which he veers between shock, grief, heartache, and a reliance on pharmaceuticals. The tone is permanently heightened; like a Dutch painting, every scene is described in glittering detail and framed with retrospective melancholy. “There was something festive and happy about the two of us,” Theo remembers of his mother, “hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella, quick quick quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it …”

A modern-day David Copperfield, the novel follows Theo as he is shunted between guardians, creating new idylls only to have them taken away again. His first stop is the grand Upper East Side apartment of the Barbours (Tartt’s names tend toward the Dickensian – you can be sure that the Barbours are the old-moneyed types to wear English waxed jackets) where he grows to love Mrs Barbour, an icy socialite. Just as she is warming up, Theo is collected by his previously absent father, now living in Las Vegas with his fake-tanned, bottle-blonde girlfriend, Xandra. In this new West-coast environment, Theo meets Boris, a young Russian with whom he listens to Radiohead and experiences his first tastes of vodka, ecstasy, and homoeroticism over many, many nights that merge, for him and the reader, into one. (“It was a fantastic night,” Theo remembers of his first experience with LSD, “– one of the great nights of my life, actually, despite what happened later …”)

The greatest stimulant in this book, however, is art; the novel’s title comes from a real painting by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius which Theo first sees on the wall of the Met and which, in the chaos after the blast, and at the urging of a dying old man, he puts in his rucksack. The painting – a small, early trompe l’oeil featuring a little bird shackled by the ankle – comes to represent the irresistible powers of fate, but also the dangerous lure of beauty, or the promise of “a flickering sunstruck instant that somehow existed now and forever.”

Tartt, whose debut was criticised for making murder look rather stylish, is still drawn to old-world charm; it is perhaps not surprising that the place where Theo should feel most at home, after his mother’s bohemian apartment, is with a restorer of antiquities, whose pad is filled with accidental curios, “dusty crystal, tarnished silver, antique chairs and …miniature marble obelisks atop a marble-topped pedestal table and a pair of alabaster cockatoos”. James Hobart (“Hobie”) lives in downtown New York in “a narrow doorwell, tucked halfway between number 8 and number 10, half-hidden by a rack of old-fashioned tin garbage cans” and opens the door wearing, over his clothes, “a rich paisley robe with satin lapels …like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.”

The Goldfinch is impressive – lavish, gripping, exciting – and yet somehow, like one of the “changeling” pieces of furniture made by Hobie from odds and ends which Theo (in secret) tries to fob off as real, its overall effect doesn’t quite convince – its worlds too diverse and neatly juxtaposed not to raise suspicion. Tartt’s prose, always lush, can sag under its own decoration; the register, too, slides between Sebaldian cool and teenage slang (“I was going to miss them but it seemed gay to come out and say so”).

As the novel progresses, Theo craves stronger stimulants to keep himself going and the reader may also tire. The last stretch hums with drugs, car chases and the shady world of black market art. It’s lots of fun but, as we have been warned from the very first page, it will land our hero in bed with a terrible fever.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article