Book review: Golden Hill

The pure raw delight that Golden Hill manages to conjure pretty much immediately is testament to author Francis Spufford’s love of the 18th century novel and his ability to create a Manhattan Island pulsing with energy and danger.

Francis Spufford

Faber & Faber, €12

This is Spufford’s first novel and the noted non-fiction writer brings his powers of research to bear on his fiction debut. 

This is a joyous ode to novels from the 18th century, employing all manner of nod and wink tricks to keep a reader in suspense and to propel them further and further into the heart of the story in an effort to unravel the mystery set at its outset.

However, Spufford’s obvious dutiful research and love for that era’s novels are utterly surpassed by his ability to create chapters that leap with delight off of the page. Rarely has historical fiction been this entertaining.

From page one we are introduced to Richard Smith, a handsome stranger about to pitch up to Golden Hill Street in Manhattan Island in 1746. 

Smith has an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket that he wishes to cash and from there, he stumbles in and out of favour and trust in a Manhattan discovering its identity. 

He falls in love with Tabitha — the vindictive daughter of his creditor and we are left as puzzled as the rest of Manhattan as to what exactly his intentions are.

Word quickly spreads about this mysterious stranger, this New York is miniscule next to the likes of London and the contrast between the still small town and the vast sweeping visuals is jarring and alluring.

The locals here are gruff, unsentimental, often cunning and deeply suspicious. Smith is robbed soon after his arrival and he cannot shake the eyes that are constantly on him.

Spufford builds his story through the eyes of a third person narrator who at various points, informs the reader of their ignorance in matters such as card games or duels and thus we can delight in their description and feel as if we simply have an outstanding narrator telling us a story as best they can. 

It also means we can doubt the narrator, a fact that adds to the intrigue.

Along the way Smith encounters the splendidly named Septimus Oakeshott and their budding relationship forms the core of the book. 

Oakeshott is at first wary of this rich stranger before coming to his aide in a dazzlingly crafted sequence that combines farce with violence in a chase scene involving a drunk mob and rooftop jumps.

The often breathless sequences that Spufford manages to create are the book’s central strength. His prose crackles like fire and the Manhattan he has created is teeming with life in all of its glory and greed. The effect is to leave a reader grinning in delight.

The novel manages to narrow in focus as we reach its conclusion and the twists and turns turn into one straight road.

Smith’s fortunes vary wildly and here Spufford manages to convey a fully rounded character without giving his true motives away.

The book’s denouement comes with one jarring twist yet it still manages to be utterly satisfying. 

Our narrator sums up by questioning the very point of novels in all of their ‘conjurer’s distracting busywork’ before countering with the notion that they are ‘lies at every turn, but lies are better than nothing’.

Deception is at the heart of Golden Hill but it gloriously captures the pure truth of human feeling.

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