As a writer, I gasped in awe and groaned with envy; as a reader I was anxious, sickened and maddened.
As a writer: I acknowledge The Goldfinch as a masterpiece. The scope is vast, the subject matter complex and requiring much detailed research. The writing itself is a delight, bringing all the senses alive moment by moment. I can only envy the mastery that enables Donna Tartt to use every word in her vocabulary. She describes small events over several pages rarely boring the reader or (presumably) causing her editor to asked for a 20,000 word chop. Even the simplest description is luxurious:
The sun didn’t seem to rise until about nine in the morning and even then it was hazed and gloomy, casting a low, weak, purgatorial light like a stage effect in some German opera.
She has superb control of tempo and keeps the tension ratcheted up, even while taking long descriptive detours. This is, as reviewers have noted, a Dickensian novel. It is also, as a friend pointed out, a magnificent, classical tragedy – a single blow of fate that then tangles the protagonist, and all who come in contact with him, in a network of misfortune. The ending, however, varies from the classical pattern.
In the last 70 or so pages, the three main characters step out of role and the authorial voice whispers and then starts shouting. In fact the whole of the end, as my friend again pointed out, tells of it’s American origins and the American reader’s expectations. The ending is, in many ways, satisfying, but, as a writer, I would judge it to be unbelievable.
As a reader: The Goldfinch was the kind of book I most dislike. It cleverly and intentionally kept me in a state of mild panic through most of it’s 700 odd pages. I’m sorry to be a wuss, but I don’t like sustained anxiety, aggression, cruelty, aggravated stupidity and characters who persist in being their own worst enemies. I have an enduring fondness for classical tragedy, yet in such tragedies the reader usually occupies a seat next to the gods, looking down on the piddling struggles of the humans caught in the net of fate. You watch them, unable to help, yet able to learn, at the very least, the meaning of hubris. In the Goldfinch, we are asked to hold hands with the protagonist and share in every misguided decision he makes, to experience his loss, his fear, his persistent bad luck and his stupidity. To be moved by a character’s fate, I need to feel love or compassion. I did indeed feel compassion, but few of the characters inspired love and the compassion was drowned out by irritation and fear.
So The Goldfinch was, to me, a very grand, ambitious, literary thriller – but a thriller nonetheless and I sincerely dislike being ‘thrilled’. The essence of being thrilled is to induce fear in the reader. To some this is a form of bone-shivering delight; for me it is acute discomfort. I will accept acute discomfort when reading accounts of the sufferings of Far East POWs, but not in a piece of fiction.
If you get this far you may wonder why I persisted in reading this book. It was a present from a dear friend and both he, and others, have remarked that the opening to my novel Unseen Unsung (2008) has much in common with the opening, the section on the explosion, of The Goldfinch (though mine is just half the length).