This probably contains some spoilers so don’t get in a beef with me if you read it and I ruin your life or anything.
There was a time when the length of a book was no barrier to me deciding to read it. ‘Les Miserables’ took me two days. I once read a 1000 page account of the Spanish Civil War (I think it was called ‘The Spanish Civil War’) in the space of a few days of my summer holiday. ‘Birdsong’: one day by the pool in Mexico. ‘American Psycho’: ditto. I was a speed-reading machine; not only that, but I had a superhuman recall for everything I’d read too.
Then I had a baby.
I do not subscribe to the ‘baby brain’ idea – constructed, as it clearly is, by men who want an excuse to undermine women in the workplace without being subjected to disciplinary procedures– but, one thing is for certain: this little person really eats into my reading time. Aside from the fact that I now only manage a book a week (and sometimes not even that, shamefully), length is now an issue too. While on maternity leave, I tried to take advantage of The Child’s naptimes to read ‘War and Peace,’ but when my Kindle told me it would take me 24 hours to read it, I saw no option but to concede defeat on the grounds that 24 hours probably represented six months of my life at that time. Also, ‘War and Peace’ is, as it turns out, almost painfully boring. Leo, if you need a list of characters at the start of every bloody chapter, you’ve got too many characters.
So ‘number of pages’ is now a category that must be considered when choosing a new read. This is why I approached ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt with trepidation. 850 pages? Really? Could I honestly commit to this?
Clearly, I did. The novel (I’m an English teacher, so I have to refer to it with this slightly more pretentious description) starts in Amsterdam, with one of those ‘everything is a mess now, but I’m not going to tell you how it got this way for another 800 pages’ openings which seems to be a legal requirement these days. I only actually remember this first chapter because I’ve referred back having finished it; I think Tartt may be pushing her luck if she expects anyone to connect the dots when Theodore Decker, the narrator, finally makes it to the Netherlands. And even if they do remember it, they’re probably still thinking, ‘but seriously, why are you in the Netherlands?’
The second chapter begins with what could have been a great opening sentence: “things would be turned out better if she had lived.” Had this been the first sentence of the novel, it’s the kind of thing which would provoke my well-drilled year ten class to make salient points about the ambiguous use of “she” and the assumption that things have turned out badly, but the lack of information about why; this, kids, is ambiguity. In fairness, things have turned out to basically suck for Theo; on a visit to a gallery with his mother (a visit only happening because she has been summoned by Theo’s school principal for an ominous-sounding meeting) SOMETHING TERRIBLE happens and Theo’s life is never the same again. The SOMETHING TERRIBLE is described quite brilliantly; obviously it’s the catalyst for everything else that happens so it has to be at the beginning, but I wonder whether it’s the best bit of the whole novel and everything that comes after is slightly less fascinating. Especially the bit in Amsterdam which all seems a bit overblown and ridiculous.
After that, it all gets very Dickensian; there are uncaring grandparents, a dissolute father, an Eastern European approximation of the Artful Dodger and a point when it seems inevitable that poor hungry Theo is going to approach someone with a bowl and ask for some more. There aren’t any Muppets though, which is a tad disappointing. The Dickens parallels were mentioned in a review I read before starting ‘The Goldfinch’ and they are almost amusingly noticeable by the end. Apart from the weird bit in Amsterdam, which I don’t think ever happened in ‘Great Expectations.’
Everyone around Theo does seem to be spectacularly awful in a way that would even cause Tiny Tim to sympathise. He is a little bit awful himself, but I wanted to punch him a lot less than I did Amir when I read ‘The Kite Runner,’ which is now the standard-bearer for incredibly annoying books with incredibly annoying narrators. Tartt’s depiction of Theo’s father is, now that I think about it, pretty genius; he is clearly a terrible dad with no real knowledge of or interest in his son, but there are a few fleeting moments when he becomes almost sympathetic. Perhaps the Dickens comparisons run to slightly flat characterisation; Hobie, for example, is the loveliest man in literature since Atticus Finch, while Lucius Reeve is basically Voldemort in a cravat (I’m not sure if he’s ever described as wearing a cravat, but that’s how I picture him). I suppose the first person narrator is the reason for this; we see people the way that Theo sees them, which becomes particularly interesting when he talks about Kitsey.
Aside from the sheer length of the novel, the other thing which almost put me off was the experience of reading Tartt’s other works: ‘The Little Friend’ and ‘The Secret History.’ It is a few years since I read either and, as previously mentioned, I have forgotten everything I have ever read since The Child made her appearance, but I do recall enjoying both of these right up until the end. I don’t remember why, but my abiding memory is of rubbish endings. And ‘The Goldfinch’ sort of continues this trend. Maybe it’s because I was desperate to finish reading before I went to bed at some extremely rock and roll time like 9.30 and read too quickly, but the way the drama was resolved seemed slightly too convenient for me; I can’t be the only person who read it and thought ‘but why didn’t you just do that in the first place?’ Because, once the SOMETHING TERRIBLE has happened, Theo is tormented by his continued possession of a painting – the eponymous ‘Goldfinch’ – to the extent that it seems to make him completely mad. I know it’s the symbolism and the connection to his mother, blah blah, but I’m sure there are better ways to deal with accidental major art theft than his method. It does, however, facilitate a twist which, on reflection, was brilliant and sort of weirdly hilarious too. Ahh, that Boris.
I’ve crossed the line into talking about characters like they’re real people; this is exactly what makes me get the red pen out when marking. Time to sum up. ‘The Goldfinch’ was epic in length and, at times, in nature; I’m glad I read it, and not just because now I know some Ukrainian swear words.