Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

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Book review: “Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York” by Francis Spufford

There are many pleasures to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, and the greatest is its sheer unexpectedness.

It is fresh in startling ways. It is idiosyncratic storytelling that’s robustly accessible, a literary experiment that melds a variety of novel-writing approaches ranging from the early 1700s up to our present minute — and, yet, always clear and present and eye-opening. And, from start to finish, it has its own language and voice, a vibrantly individual work of fiction.

I describe Golden Hill, published in 2016, as an experiment because Spufford had never written a novel before and because it is one of a kind.

 

Historical fiction, love story, mystery?

You could call it historical fiction since it does cover a 45-day period at the end of 1746 in New York City, but this is no fancy-dress tale. It has no hackneyed plot, nor is it an effort to explain what happened behind the scenes of some major event.

You could call it a love story since it does involve a very awkward but ardent courtship — as if involving two porcupines — between Richard Smith, a surprise visitor from London, and Tabitha Lovell, the shrewishly sharp-tongued and emotionally fragile daughter of a prominent New York businessman. But in how many love stories is the catalyzing moment of the relationship marked by a drowning look, a desperate grin and a scream?

You could call it a mystery of sorts since Smith arrives in New York with a note for a thousand pounds sterling (or 1,738 pounds in New York money) that he expects Tabitha’s father to redeem, even though the colonial economy is chronically short of cash and even though he refuses to tell Mr. Lovell how he plans to use the funds and even though this will put quite a dent into the financial stability of Lovell’s business.

There are shocks aplenty in the novel, particularly in its final pages, but, by the time they start arriving, Smith’s secret has become part of the story’s landscape, in a manner of speaking — always there, but not terribly prominent.  Until the final pages.

 

Intensely human fabric

Instead, the reader is caught up in an intensely human fabric of the world Spufford conjures — a world of Smith’s internal monologues, his efforts to scrape by financially until the note’s scheduled payment on Christmas Day, his near-murder, his turn on the local theater stage, his two times in gaol, his perilous maneuvering between the New York partisans of the Governor and of the Assembly, his trial while suffering a head cold and fever — “Nod guilty´— and his on-off-on-off courting of the sharp-edged Tabitha.

Oh, and there’s a naked woman who shows up in the story, a cellmate from hell (or certainly on his way there), a friend who is accidently slain and various glimpses of the vast, threatening continent that spreads endlessly and darkly to the west.

Secrets, as they are revealed, are truly unexpected — the whole story is unexpected — yet, this isn’t a novel about secrets.

It’s about whether Smith will survive his six weeks in New York and whether he and Tabitha will finally drive themselves permanently apart….or something else.

 

Exuberant joy

Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford exhibits an exuberant joy in the delectable exercise of writing with its word play and sideways creativity.

It would be one thing to say that money is tight in the colonies and, given the various traders from many nations, something of a jumble. It’s another to do as Spufford’s narrator does in having Mr. Lovell count out the currency he is handing to Smith as walking-about money:

“A Mexica dollar, which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugee cruzeiros, three shillings New York. A quarter-guilder. Two kreutzers, Lemberg. One kreutzer, Danish. Four sous. And a Moresco piece we can’t read, but it weighs at fourteen pennyweight, sterling, so we’ll call it two-and-six, New York. Twenty-one and fourpence, total. Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.”

What he means are paper notes from other colonies and countries, promising to pay small amounts, a few pence, a couple shillings, in coin if presented to the issuer. These notes Spufford describes as:

“a pile of creased and folded slips….some printed black and some printed red and some brown, like the despoiled pages of a prayerbook, only of varying shapes and sizes; some limp and torn; some leathery with grease; some marked only with dirty letterpress and others bearing coats-of-arms, whales spouting, shooting stars, feathers, leaves, savages…”

 

Another brick, another stone

This is how Spufford, through his narrator, handles a relatively unimportant detail of his story — with elegant specificity, so finely detailed as to quickly become delightfully humorous.

And not all that unimportant either, since much of Smith’s paper is stolen a short time later by a street thief, causing him no end of complications, to say nothing of hunger and thirst.

Indeed, no detail of Golden Hill is unimportant since Spufford’s narrator uses each as another brick, another stone, another girder, another joist with which to construct the tale and its characters.

 

Narrator and reader

And, in a touch that recalls eighteenth-century novels, there really is a narrator, as the reader is reminded at points here and there in the story-telling. Such as when Smith is about to play a card game and the narrator interrupts the narrative to turn to the reader to say:

“Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet, which shall therefore be explained.”

And then comes a disjointed, Marx Brothers-like 200-plus word effort to provide that promised clear insight into and understanding of the game — all of which crumbles into wretched failure, leading the narrator to say:

We are out of time, with little enlightenment secured. Still, the reader may now find himself in as bemused a position as Mr. Smith, which is, to be sure, a kind of gain in understanding.”

Which is certainly true, but not any less funny for that.

 

“Stirred and winced sluggishly”

One last point: As the coin and paper excerpts above indicate, Spufford’s narrator often enjoys the use of long, flowing, even rippling, sentences in which myriad adjectives and nouns and other words provide a multi-perspective of a person or an event or a setting.

Consider this description of Tabitha — in one of her dark and abject states of mind — sitting in a crowded dark room and suddenly, in a shaft of light, the object of the attention of everyone in the room:

“Curled up on the seat, with her knees drawn up to her chin, she was indeed twisted as far away from the company as she might turn, but not laughingly, not in a posture of proud refusal. She seemed clutched in on herself as an animal is who curls tight against pursuers, who presents brittle spines or creaking plates of horn because it cannot contend with the world in any more active means. The flames made her look yellow, but she might have been so anyway, without them, for her skin seemed wizened into a mummified dryness on her bones, with dark shadows practically announcing to bruises under her eyes; and she appeared to have shrunk, to have thinned past slenderness to a dry, jointed angularity. She did not look well, or young. In the sudden glare of light from the candles she only stirred and winced sluggishly, like a wasp left over from summer.”

There is much going on in that passage, as there is much going on on every page of Golden Hill.

Those pages reflect Spufford and his narrator as lively, hearty and deep-breathing, and that’s how the reader comes away from this book.

It is a kind of vigorous, joyful exercise that leaves the heart beating hard and the mind exalted.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

2.28.18

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