The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is a first person account of Theo Decker’s relationship with the Fabritius painting of the same name. Theo walks unharmed from the bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the goldfinch painting in a canvas bag. His mother is killed in the bombing and what begins as the salvage of a masterpiece that belongs to everyone, becomes the invisible anchor of Theo’s new and painfully unfettered life.

The novel is undoubtedly well written, full of poignant moments and beautiful descriptions, but there was almost too much. Sometimes I felt as if the narrative was sucking me into Theo’s numb, often drugged, world in a way that left me unable to account for paragraphs of text. Intentional or not, it left me unsympathetic towards Theo. I wouldn’t have been distressed by a suicide endnote. I was remarkably uninterested in his survival, but I was engaged in and frustrated by his behaviour.

It struck me while reading that there is a similar feel to all of Tartt’s fiction: a sense of lost childhood and of the adolescent’s yearning to unravel the mystery of that loss and the mystery of the human condition, which must face the red in nature’s tooth and claw. Freud, Jung, Kristeva, Neitzche, Dionysus, always hover at the edges of her work. Whilst there is a charm and intensity to this exploration and unending reinterpretation of memory and people, there can occasionally be a lurch into the sentimental or, even worse, intellectually postured musings on the meaning of life. Much of the last chapter I would happily have excised. Do we need the protagonist to explain the first person narrative? Somehow, setting down the reasons for writing, at the end of the novel, felt like an after note for any readers who may not have understood what Tartt was trying to say through the story itself. I felt saddened by it, partly because Theo summarises his love of the painting as a love of whispered provocation rather than hackneyed message:

‘The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful, resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution. There’s only a double abyss: between the painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later.’

He goes on to say,

‘As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. / And – I would argue as well – all love.’

Though it seems to me that life is all about that middle zone where perception meets and indeed filters reality, the idea of truth as an illusion speaks to me. This is why I consider literature to be a more useful exploration of the world than philosophy: life isn’t just about thought, the subtler edge of perception should be a fundamentally accepted premis and accompaniment to thought. The chaos of coinciding event and experience feels, for me, too much for cold reason. Art, narrative in particular, can provide the muddied mess of that meeting point, whether it be considered beautiful or not. I’m not sure, however, that laying these ideas out as a kind of postscript to the events of the novel (it’s an irony that both of these quotes come from the last chapter), is the best way to provoke readers into questioning the value of art. Did we need a helpful summary of the pull and sway of art as it affected the characters in the novel? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions about this.

The nature of these criticisms, however, could only really arise from something that lives and breathes enough to allow the reader to grapple with it. I’m not sure that I would have given The Goldfinch the Pulitzer (though perhaps the idea of awarding prizes itself feels strangely arbitrary), but it is certainly a novel I would recommend, a novel that more than earns its literary status. Whilst I suspect other novels surrounded by less fuss may have moments that stay with me longer than any in The Goldfinch, I’ve deliberately left out much of a plot summary to allow more readers to read it unspoilt.

Next week I’ll be reading The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough, followed by In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. As ever, please do send in suggestions for books you’d like me to read in future weeks.