Those of you who follow my blog and read my reviews (yes, you!) might remember this book kept coming up recently. Well, I had to read it. Here it is.
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746.
One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a counting-house door in Golden Hill Street: this is Mr Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge amount, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he can be planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.
Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?
An astonishing first novel, as stuffed with incident as a whole shelf of conventional fiction, Golden Hill is both a book about the eighteenth century, and itself a novel cranked back to the form’s eighteenth century beginnings, when anything could happen on the page, and usually did, and a hero was not a hero unless he ran the frequent risk of being hanged.
Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill has a plot that twists in every chapter, and a puzzle at its heart that won’t let go till the last paragraph of the last page.
Set a generation before the American Revolution, it paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later self: but subtly shadowed by the great city to come, and already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love – and find a world of trouble.
“Francis Spufford has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature.”
“One is drawn ineluctably into the world of colonial New York from the first sentence of Golden Hill. Wonderfully written and entertaining.”
“Francis Spufford has long been one of my favourite writers of non-fiction; he is now becoming a favourite writer of fiction as well. Golden Hill is a meticulously crafted and brilliantly written novel that is both an affectionate homage to the 18th century novel and a taut and thoughtful tale.”
“I loved this book so much. Golden Hill wears its research with incredible insouciance and grace; a rollicking picaresque, it is threaded through with darkness but has a heart of gold.”
“Marvelous. A vivid re-creation of colonial New York, in which the adventures of Mr. Smith, who may be a charlatan or a hero, make for a page turner, with an unexpected and unusually satisfying ending.”
—C. J. Sansom
“Sparkling…A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“The intoxicating effect of Golden Hill is much more than an experiment in form. [Spufford] has created a complete world, employing his archivist skills to the great advantage of his novel … This is a book born of patience, of knowledge accrued and distilled over decades, a style honed by practice. There are single scenes here more illuminating, more lovingly wrought, than entire books.”
—Financial Times (UK)
“Like a newly discovered novel by Henry Fielding with extra material by Martin Scorsese. Why it works so well is largely down to Spufford’s superb re-creation of New York … His writing crackles with energy and glee, and when Smith’s secret is finally revealed it is hugely satisfying on every level. For its payoff alone Golden Hill deserves a big shiny star.”
—The Times (UK)
“Splendidly entertaining and ingenious … Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly … a first-class period entertainment.”
“Paying tribute to writers such as Fielding, Francis Spufford’s creation exudes a zesty, pin-sharp contemporaneity … colonial New York takes palpable shape in his dazzlingly visual, pacy and cleverly plotted novel.”
—Daily Mail (UK)
“Golden Hill shows a level of showmanship and skill which seems more like a crowning achievement than a debut . [Spufford] brings his people and situations to life with glancing ease … They all live and breathe with conviction … His descriptive powers are amazing … Spufford’s extraordinary visual imagination and brilliant pacing seems to owe more to the movies than anything else.”
—Evening Standard (UK)
“The best 18th century novel since the 18th century.”
—BBC Radio 4
“Recounting this picaresque rale with serious undertones, Spufford adeptly captures 18th-century commercial practices and linguistic peculiarities as well as pre-Revolutionary Manhattan’s cultural hodgepodge…readers are rewarded with a feast of language, character, local color, and historical detail.”
“A virtuoso literary performance.”
—Booklist, starred review
“A successful homage to the great master of the picaresque novel, Henry Fielding.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“The entire flavor, tone, and prose of the book make this an exceptional read whose pages practically flew by.”
—Historical Novel Society
About the author:
Officially, I’ve been a writer of non-fiction for the last twenty years. But when I’m excited by what I’m writing about, what I want to do with my excitement is always to tell a story – and every one of my non-fiction books has borrowed techniques from the novel, and contained sections where I came close to behaving like a novelist. The chapter retelling the story of Captain Scott’s last Antarctic expedition at the end of “I May Be Some Time”, for example, or the thirty-page version of the gospel story in “Unapologetic”. “Red Plenty” was a kind of documentary novel all the way through. Now, though, I’ve completed my shy, crabwise crawl towards fiction, and have a book coming out which is an honest-to-goodness entirely made-up story. No foot-notes, no invisible scaffolding of facts holding it up: “Golden Hill” (Scribner, 27 June 2017) is just a novel. More specifically, it’s an eighteenth century novel. It’s set in the winter of 1746, in what was then the very small colonial town of New York; but it’s also written like a novel from the eighteenth century. So the story of the charming but unreliable-seeming young Mr Smith, who turns up from London with a document in his pocket that may be a fraud or may be worth a fortune, is as hectically stuffed with event as it would have been if Fielding or Smollett had written it. Eighteenth-century readers expected to get their money’s worth, and “Golden Hill” contains (among other things) a mystery, a political intrigue, a love story, a ball, a duel, a high-stakes card game, a trial, a dash of horror, a play-within-a-play, some surprisingly graphic sex and a rooftop chase. As a slow writer, I enjoyed working on something that runs fast. It was intricate fun devising and winding up the book’s clockwork. But I hope it’s also a story that feels alive, and makes the past feel alive too, while Mr Smith runs for his life, and the snow falls on Manhattan Island. There is a tumblr for it at golden-hill.tumblr.com.
(Okay, biography. I was born in 1964, I’m married with an eleven-year-old daughter, and I teach writing at Goldsmiths College, London.)
Thanks to Net Galley and to Faber & Faber for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
I had an interesting experience with this novel. In the last few weeks, every time I reviewed a novel that was nominated for an award and checked out what novel had won it, it was Golden Hill (among them, the Costa First Novel Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017…) and I thought I had to read it and find out what the fuss what about.
It is not difficult to see why people are fascinated by this novel. It is a historical fiction novel by an author who has written non-fiction extensively and has chosen a very interesting narrative style. (I must confess to being very intrigued by his book called The Child that Books Built. A Life in Reading, especially in view of a recent discussion we had on my blog about books on reading). The story is set in the New York of the late 1740s and is narrated by an anonymous narrator (or so it seems as we read) who tells the story of a man, Richard Smith, who arrives in the New World with a money order for 1000 pounds and acts quite mysteriously. The story is told in the third person, but the narrator breaks the third wall barrier often, at times to despair at being unable to describe a card game, or a fight, at others to decide where we can or cannot enter. Although the book’s language and style are word-perfect (and will enchant those who love accuracy), it appears more sensitive to certain aspects of the society of the time than perhaps a novel of the period would have been (slavery, gender, and race issues…) but the narrating style reminds us of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in a nod to metafiction, in the book itself there are discussions of novels that include Joseph Andrews or David Simple. I have talked often about my fascination for narrators and this is one of those novels that will keep it alive for a long time.
The book transports the reader to the New York of 1747, a provincial and small place, with only a few streets and a mixture of inhabitants mostly from Dutch and English origins, with a jumble of different coins and bank notes in circulation, what appear to be the equivalent of small-town politics and an interesting judicial system, and dependent on ships from London for news and entertainment. Although I have read historical tracts and fiction from the era, I don’t think any of them managed to give me as good an understanding and a feel for what colonial New York was like.
The story itself is built around the mystery of Smith’s character. Who is he? Is the money order real, or is he a con-man? Is he a magician, an actor, a seducer, a trouble-maker, all of the above? Everybody wants him, or better, his money, for their own goals (political, financial…) and he allows himself to be courted by all, although he is only really interested in the daughter of one of the Dutch businessmen who is holding his money order until they receive confirmation of its true value, Tabitha. Tabitha is my favourite character, a shrew, sharp and witty, and somebody I wouldn’t mind learning much more about.
Smith is a good stand-in for the reader because although he is from the era, he is naïve as to the colonies and the different social mores, politics, and customs there, and keeps getting into trouble. Although his adventures are interesting, and the mystery that surrounds him seemingly propels the story (although half-way through the novel we get a clue as to what might be behind the intrigue), I found it difficult to fully empathise with him, perhaps because of the style of narration (although the story is told by a narrator, and in the third person, at times we get a clear look at what Smith is thinking, but, for me, the hidden information somehow hindered my full investment in the character). There are many other interesting characters, although we do not get to know any of them in a lot of detail. For a great insight into the book and all that it contains, I recommend you read the About the author note I have included above. The man can write, for sure.
The ending… Well, there is an ending to the story and then there is a final twist. If you picked up the clues, the ending will not be such a big surprise. The twist… Yes, it makes one look at the book in a completely different way, although it makes perfect sense.
I highlighted many fragments that I particularly liked, but on checking them again I was worried they might, either give too much away or confuse somebody who is not following the story. So I’d advise you to check the book sample available on your favourite online bookstore and see if you enjoy the style. If you do, it only gets better.
I recommend this book to anybody curious about its reputation, to lovers of historical fiction, in particular, those set up in the colonies prior to the revolution, and to readers and writers who enjoy narrators and look for something a bit different.
Thanks to Net Galley and to the publishers, congratulations to the author, and thanks to all of you for reading, and do not forget to like, share, comment, click and of course REVIEW!