Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’, published in 2013, is the story of how a thirteen-year-old boy named Theo sees his whole world destroyed in one cataclysmic instant, and spends the rest of his life struggling to draw together the shattered pieces into a coherent whole. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, both in 2014. Theo Decker lives in Manhattan with his beautiful, dynamic and creative mother Audrey, following their abandonment years before by his alcoholic father. One morning they visit an art gallery, where Audrey wants to show Theo one of her favourite paintings, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius. Theo catches sight of a red-haired girl carrying a music case, accompanied by an older man, and is immediately attracted to her; he is crossing the gallery to try and get a closer look at her when the bomb explodes.
The explosion is the result of a mystery terrorist attack and it destroys the gallery, killing almost everyone inside, including Theo’s mother. As they lie together in the rubble, the red-haired girl’s dying companion bequeaths Theo his ring, and in a state of confusion and concussion Theo also takes the painting ‘The Goldfinch’ with him as he stumbles out of the ruins.
Theo is initially taken in by a wealthy school friend named Andy, where he uses the ring given him by the old man to track down his business partner Hobie, who runs an antique furniture shop. Here he is also introduced to the girl from the gallery, Pippa, whose physical injuries are far more serious than Theo’s and subject her to years of treatment and rehabilitation. He is then shipped out to Las Vegas to live with his father. Depressed, lonely and grieving, left to his own self-destructive devices, he is befriended by Boris, a tough, damaged and lawless Ukrainian boy. Together they survive by shoplifting to feed themselves and pass the time drinking and experimenting with drugs. All this time Theo is still hiding the stolen painting, obsessively wondering what to do with it, terrified of being exposed and arrested, but unable to let it go.
Eventually Theo realises that his father only tolerates his presence in the hope of paying off his immense gambling debts with the money from Theo’s mother’s trust fund. Shortly after this hope is crushed due to stipulations in her will, he dies in a car accident, and Theo runs away back to New York to avoid being sent to a care home. He returns to Hobie and eventually ends up running the antique shop with him. As Theo grows up he descends into severe drug addiction and, through initially trying to save Hobie’s business, also becomes embroiled in the murky underworld of antique fraud. When he is threatened by the powerful, ruthless Lucius Reeve, who accuses him not only of having stolen The Goldfinch but also, mysteriously, of passing it around Europe through various different art dealers, Theo begins to panic. His old friend Boris then makes his return into his life, now a wealthy - and criminally-connected - businessman, insisting he can save him.
‘The Goldfinch’ is startlingly clever psychologically, never straying into sentimentality despite its almost archetypal basis: the journey of a young orphan boy cast adrift in the world. Theo is angry, selfish, human, relatable, and, although his situation demands our sympathy, it never clouds our judgement of his actions. This novel, painfully honest, often sardonic and always thought-provoking, charts Theo’s growth from lonely, traumatised young boy to polished, suicidal, unstable adult, forever defined by his childhood loss and by the shadow of the stolen painting. It is a dark and strange story of addiction, obsession, betrayal and beauty, a fable of human emotion and impulse set in opposition to the laws, systems and institutions that people themselves have set up. Theo is not interested in the painting because it is worth so many millions. For him, it forms a psychic link to that devastating moment where his old life was destroyed and when his mother was ripped away from him. The plot hinges on this crucial moment: it is frozen in the painting of The Goldfinch, preserved, blighting the present but giving it purpose and beauty. So long as Theo has the painting, binding him to the past, he is anchored to life; it is a neurotic obsession that might prevent him from moving on but is also all that gives him any reason to do so.
This novel deals with economic inequality, mental illness, violence, governmental inadequacy and social meltdown concealed beneath a polite veneer of money and glamour. Above all it deals with love, and with that “history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire”, irrationally, illegally, simply to answer a strange irresistible call beyond the restrictions of law and order. It is one of the most human books I have ever come across.
By Anna Rivers