Crackling pyrotechnics a tad let down by a concluding damp squib

This is my review of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford.

In the parochial little British colony of mid-eighteenth century New York, no one knows what to make of the handsome young new arrival from London, Mr Richard Smith. Is he a provocative conman, or a well-intentioned blunderer? Should the wily merchant Lovell accept his bill of exchange demanding the vast and ruinous sum of a thousand pounds? When the gossip grapevine spreads the word of Smith’s wealth, everyone wants to curry his favour, but a twist of misfortune can quickly set the whole community against him

Francis Spufford has used his research skills as an established writer of non-fiction to recreate in his first novel the minute and vivid detail of a past age which seems to ring true even if it is fact an artful illusion. This is a modern take on a Henry Fielding, Tom Jones kind of fiction, a succession of quirky events, with a sometimes intrusive narrator, but free from the sententious, long-winded moralising of the classics. The author has even taken the bold risk of adopting an eighteenth century turn of phrase, and appears to carry it off. Although some may find the style somewhat contrived and overblown, I was continually impressed by his skill in moulding words into distinctive, original images and thoughts. Often funny, entertaining yet farcical, the narrative keeps returning to the alternating spark and pathos of Smith’s encounters with the sharp-tongued, unpredictable Tabitha Lovell, the bird in a cage of her own making. He is drawn to her fatefully, despite knowing that “there is something very wrong with her”.

He made me realise how the lack of coins in New York obliged people to trade with a bewildering variety of coins of arbitrary value “ a Morisco piece we can’t read, but it weighs in at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six”. He can write a whole page on the simple act of walking in near darkness through a hall and up a staircase: “picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s worth of distant constellations”. And so the narrative rattles on through the twists and turns of pursuits of a thief, sinister bonfire celebrations, melodramatic escapes across roof-tops, imprisonment, amateur dramatics, and duelling in the snow.

Francis Spufford could make paint drying sound interesting, as when Smith describes a boat trip up the Hudson River through a fog which shifts from “coagulated grey curtains…. to mere streamers and tatters….. while little cats’-paws of breeze come wrinkling and dabbing…..scuffing the water… from silver to pewter” or observes the winter ice forming on the East River, “into whose depths you could look and see swirls of grey brine and glassy freshwater fused together as still and rigid as the heart of a child’s marble.

Beneath the flippant, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a varied cast of well-drawn characters with hints of their failings and secrets, run the darker currents of the serious rivalry between the Governor and smoothly menacing, power-hungry Judge De Launcey, the crude and corrupt system of justice, and the contemptuous exploitation of the slaves on whom the prosperity of the colony is based. There is the lurking knowledge that even a happy ending will be short-lived, since the colony is shortly to be blasted apart by the War of Independence with Great Britain.

On finishing this book I was left with a sense of disappointment, partly because the verbal pyrotechnics of this well-plotted page-turner made other novels seem bland. It was also due to my finding the denouement revealing Smith’s much-hinted at but long-kept secret something of an under-developed anti-climax, and the final unsettling twist too clever by half. Yet I did not mind that the ending is inconclusive. In general, for sheer originality and the quality of the writing, this book would make a deserving winner of the Man Booker Prize.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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