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The Goldfinch By Donna Tartt, Little, Brown, Rs 799

Donna Tartt is on a winning streak, and is not one to jinx her success by moving away from trusted methods. Her hugely popular debut novel, The Secret History (1992), began with a murder in Vermont and the narrator revealing that he was complicit in the crime. Succeeding it was the bestselling The Little Friend (2002), which, too, opened with murder; the victim was found hanging from a tree in Mississippi, his flaming red hair “the only thing about him that was the right colour anymore”. Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning third book, an expansive bildungsroman called The Goldfinch, begins with — you guessed it — murder, and it happens in New York.

The Delft Thunderclap, a devastating gunpowder explosion in the city of Delft in the Netherlands, killed a least a hundred people and injured thousands in October 1654. Among the dead was the young painter, Carel Fabritius, a former student of Rembrandt. Very few of Fabritius’s works still exist; he is considered by many to be a lost genius. The teenaged Theo and his art-aficionado mother go to an exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she tells him that her favourite work is the 1654 masterpiece, The Goldfinch, by Fabritius. Moments later, a bomb blast rips through the Met, killing her. The traumatized young boy staggers out of the ruined, debris-strewn museum, holding onto the Fabritius painting — which, rest assured, is in reality displayed in peace and quiet at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague — for dear life. As the book records with diminishing credibility, the painting will remain in Theo’s possession for years.

Long forsaken by his deadbeat father, Theo takes refuge first in a plush New York apartment and then in a charming house in Greenwich village. The first belongs to his classmate’s aristocratic family; the latter, a more welcoming place, belongs to the young Pippa, a talented musician who was also wounded in the blast, and her guardian, a devout restorer of antiques named James “Hobie” Hobart. A sudden turn of events wrenches Theo away from all of this and deposits him in Las Vegas, where he is doomed to live with his alcoholic father and his haggard girlfriend, Xandra, surrounded by poor taste and unending provisions of drugs and alcohol. The following years are difficult; it is only the painting — “like a holy icon carried by a crusader into battle” — that keeps alive in him the memory of greater things. Shady figures from the gangland begin to clog up the narrative with a growing frequency, as Theo — with his friend, Boris, yet another Slavic hoodlum caricature — hits new, drug-addled lows. Can Fabritius’s painting, which is the symbol of his mother’s love and art’s emancipating power, bring him back from the brink?

With her conscious decision to move her focus away from the small communities — colleges and towns the size of a plate — that added high definition to her earlier works, Tartt’s objective in The Goldfinch seems to be to echo the range of the fiction written in the 19th century. A number of swooning reviewers of the book have hailed it as “Dickensian”. It is true that a few such parallels exist, alongside some themes that echo the works of J.D. Salinger. Theo’s sudden, black fall into vulnerable orphanhood makes Amy Dorrit’s struggles seem like a very slow descent into suffering. The shabby apartment that Theo and his mother just about managed to hold on to may not remind one of the Marshalsea prison for debtors, but it is possible to see how miserable Theo’s life is when juxtaposed with those of his rich classmates at the private school where he is a scholarship student. The bomb at the Met claims his mother’s life and transforms him into the Oliver Twist of affluent Manhattan, at the mercy of nefarious characters and shunned by the grown ups he is forced to live with. Then there is Hobie, who acts as a surrogate father to the lost boy, the waif-ish girl, Pippa, and Nevada’s version of the Artful Dodger, Boris. But in spite of Tartt’s best efforts, her third novel lacks the depth to match its social range. The Little Friend came out 10 years after Tartt’s debut. The Goldfinch has beaten that record by being published 11 years after The Little Friend. These lengthy periods of hibernation are attributed to the author’s penchant for ‘perfection’ by her star-struck fans. In an interview, Tartt reportedly said, “People say that perfectionism is bad... But it’s because of perfectionists that man walked on the moon and painted the Sistine Chapel, okay? Perfectionism is good.” That is all very well, but one wonders why this perfectionism is not apparent anywhere in The Goldfinch. If readers were not convinced by The Little Friend — a rather voluminous murder mystery that revealed little more than the fact that Tartt herself had not the foggiest idea who the culprit was — that suspense is not its author’s forte, then The Goldfinch might be able to do the trick. The answer to the quandary created by Theo’s possession of the painting is embarrassing in its obviousness well before it is finally ‘revealed’. (Boris even said, “I wish I had thought of it myself, years ago... shining in plain sight, like the sun!”) With great ineptitude, Tartt tries to offer an explanation for the copious amounts of detail with which Theo peppers his narrative — he suddenly tells his readers that he has not been writing everything down “from memory”; for a decade and a half, he has been maintaining exhaustive accounts of everything he “ate and drank and wore...”

It cannot be denied that Tartt’s prose is luxurious and polished. But her woolly imagining of characters betrays her half-baked vision. The only way to describe Pippa, in her garish emerald-coloured frock that makes her look “like a fairy”, is fey; it is difficult to understand why Hobie, a cabinet-maker born in Albany, New York, would mouth expressions like “He was a bitter old sod”. Moreover, the book is weighed down by sentimentality and melodrama, as is evident in Theo’s reflections on the meaning of his struggles and grief: “… I’m hoping there’s some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it — although I’ve come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable... Because — what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

Minutes before she was killed, Theo’s mother told him, “I started off loving the bird [in the painting], the way you’d love a pet or something, and ended up loving the way he was painted.” This is perhaps the only good thing one can take away from the book: that what bewitches us, gives us great pleasure, and compels us to go back to works of art or literature repeatedly in the hope of learning more from them is, in truth, not the images or the stories themselves, but the clever skill with which they are fashioned. Unfortunately, Tartt seems to have ignored her own wisdom while writing The Goldfinch.