Reviewed by Harriet Devine
Have you ever had the experience of finishing a book and feeling as if you will never find another one that remotely measures up? That’s how I felt when I got to the end of The Goldfinch. I’ve read some excellent novels in the past year – Trollope’s Barchester series, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, The Luminaries, to name but a few. But Donna Tartt has blown them all out of the water.
This is the story of a lost painting and a lost boy. Not that the painting is really lost, though it’s lost in the eyes of the world. Nor is the boy really lost in the sense you might think, but after the death of his beloved mother Theo Decker loses his centre, his grasp, his balance. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, passed from home to unsatisfactory home, taking refuge from his pain in alcohol and drugs, Theo leads a life that sometimes becomes almost unbearably painful to read about. But what Theo never loses is his ability to love – after a fashion, anyway – and his appreciation of beauty.
So yes of course this is the story of how Theo grows up from the thirteen year old boy who is caught up in a horrific event which destroys the Metropolitan Museum in New York. One of the few survivors, he has done as he was urged by an old, dying man and rescued Carel Fabritius’s celebrated painting The Goldfinch. The novel then follows him through the succeeding years — his curious months living in the grand Park Avenue apartment of his old school friend Andy, the terrible unsupervised years in Las Vegas with his hopeless, dishonest father, during which he is usually out of his mind on alcohol and drugs, his return to New York and refuge with the great, kind-hearted furniture restorer Hogie, his adulthood as an antique dealer. But though at least ten years go by, Theo remains as confused and unhappy as ever, despite the apparent success of his outer life and his engagement to a beautiful society girl. The questions that trouble him seem unanswerable:
When in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counseler, every Disney princess knows the answer. Be yourself, follow your heart. Only, here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted? What if the heart, for its own, unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully, and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance, away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections, all the blandly held common virtues, and instead towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self immolation, disaster? If your deepest self is coaxing you toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away, stop your ears with wax, ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Or is it better to throw yourself, head first and laughing, into the holy rage that is calling your name?
But this is also a thriller, the story of what happens to the painting. For Theo has never managed to give it back, and it has remained a primary preoccupation throughout his life, a secret he has managed to keep from everyone who he is close to – or so he believes for most of the novel. His discovery that this is not the case precipitates a series of horrendous events from which he barely emerges with his life and his sanity. He does emerge, but it seems at first only to conclude what he has felt from the start, that life is catastrophe. Sounds depressing and nihilistic? It’s not, though, because Theo’s extraordinary history has at least led him to one certainty, which will perhaps save him from despair:
Between reality on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge, where beauty comes into being, where two different surfaces mingle and blur and provide what life does not, and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic, and I would argue as well, all love.
This seems to me to be a really important novel, one I look forward to re-reading, and certainly one I will never forget.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (Abacus: London, 2014). 978-0349139630, 880 pp., paperback.