Earlier this year I read The Secret History for the first time. It’s one of those books that came attached with so much expectation from years of people saying in that whispered deep-feeling tone “one of my favourite books!” that I was almost hesitant to approach the alter of it. I took the plunge and I was engaged with the twisted blood-thickened plot and the complex ping-pong game of philosophical ideas, but I didn’t find myself swept away in that glued to the book sort of way that happens too rarely. However, after reading the first section of The Goldfinch I was totally stuck as if my legs were lodged in cement. Theo’s journey from adolescence where he survives a bomb-explosion in a NYC art gallery to the bleak deserts of Las Vegas to the forlorn wintry canals of Amsterdam is a magnificently worked out plot that includes thievery, gambling, depression, the seedy black market underworld, antique furniture restoration, high-society engagement parties and a heart-racing shoot out. All the while Theo carries with him a secret which must finally be confronted and dealt with in order for him to fully accept reality and deal with his grief.
The Goldfinch tackles many large themes with all the intellectual and time warp weight of any Dickens, Proust or Dostoevsky whose writing all inform this novel. But the ideas are always in the context of the magnificent story and connected to the book’s various and memorable characters. One of the most notable is Theo’s friend Boris – an Eastern European born citizen of the world and a totally self-invented self-made man. Boris’ fanatical indulgences and addictions are pursued with an unapologetic passion driven by the question “What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good?” Theo can’t follow the same paths without being hunkered down with guilt and a sense of life’s inevitable perils. “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.” There is a pervading sense in the novel that we are led more by a sense of destiny as determined by our essential selves than by any free will we strive to impose. As much as Theo despises his father he continuously invokes common phrases and aphorisms his father said and as he grows older finds himself resembling his father both physically and in his actions. One of his father’s many addictions was gambling and it’s the element of chance which goes with this that haunts Theo’s life: “The stray chance that might, or might not, change everything.”
It’s fascinating thinking about the comparisons between this new novel and The Secret History. There are striking common themes and devices Tartt uses to engage with timeless discussions and unanswerable questions concerning art, love and life. She also has an original way of portraying masculinity, the blurred and hidden lines of sexuality and the continuous way substance abuse is used to dull the hard edges of life. Tartt has a voice so distinct that it demands to be heard and a way of entrenching you in a character’s thought process that it chimes incontestably with your own. This truly is an up-all-night reading sort of book and one that holds a plethora of dazzling surprises.