Thoughts: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

Oh, this was fun. I put this on my list purely on the basis of a Guardian review of it, and it delivered in spades. This is going to be a hard one to review because it was just so much fun, to be honest, so it’ll be a short one (not to mention the much better review linked). Going to try not to spoil, but still, be wary below the cut.

The only word to describe this book with is “romp”. I inhaled it practically, I devoured it. I lived in 1746 New York for a couple of days, and I was sad when I had to come up for air. The writing is gorgeous, though it does fall into an antique style which might get on your nerves if that’s the sort of thing that gets on your nerves (I, of course, loved it). Spufford’s powers of description are incredible, and it’s not for nothing that he won the Ondaatje Prize for his “sense of place” – a prize not noted for being won by novels.

The premise, then. Richard Smith arrives in New York from London with a bill for a thousand pounds, an amount so massive in those days that the cash sum simply didn’t exist in the city. The questions are thus: who is Richard? What’s the money for? Is his bill even real?

The themes are sharply drawn, unsentimental. I can’t say much more without giving things away. Unfortunately there’s a lot I don’t really want to take from you if you haven’t read it yet. Golden Hill is a twisty book, but not in an infuriating way. I didn’t feel like it was trying to get one up on me. It was easy and a joy to let myself be carried along by it, to enjoy reveal after reveal instead of trying to guess them.

Ugh, the more I think about it, the more I can see how the pieces fit together, all the layers falling into place to create a picture with real depth beyond the sheer fun of the straightforward first time read – but I don’t want to give it away. Little details that stick out, that you think are risky choices, turn out to have been just a part of a larger picture that the smaller one fits neatly into. The devices that made me wonder if they were a good idea, or even just wonder why this choice was made, turned out to be deliberate choices. The reader’s in good hands.

Though it’s a rangy, meandering romp of a story, everything about it was under tight control, from each small hint and reveal to the description of New York, from the waxing, waning presence of the narrator to the fierce verbal duels between charming Richard and pent-up, self-destructive, unknowable Tabitha.

I don’t have anything particularly intelligent to say about it. It was great. It stuck with me. It made me laugh and it made me think. It would be a sort of betrayal, like telling a magician’s secrets or spilling the end of The Mousetrap, to say much more but “you should read it yourself”.

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