Oh, what a lot of fun this book is! Step off the ship in the New York harbour of 1746 with Richard Smith, an entertaining young wag with a cheeky way about him, as he looks and smells and gets into all sorts of trouble hanging around town for 60 days waiting for his £1,000 cheque to clear.
Finance was complicated in those days – lots of currencies in paper and coin and gold – and Smith had a very large cheque. Why? He’s not telling. Not us, not the merchants to whom he presents his cheque and not any of the worthies about town who think perhaps, he is a French spy. This is the puzzle that keeps us turning the pages and the American gossips on their toes.
I would have been happy with a few more clues to the mystery, though some of the blokes at book club claimed to have been suspicious in the right direction, so maybe I was just being thick. It was one of those annoying plots where the almighty twist is revealed in the last chapter and you have to read the whole thing over again in the know. Sometimes I want to know the score before the game, especially if it’s a brilliant win. I was irritated by Life of Pi for this reason – did anyone [spoiler alert] guess the tiger was the cook all along? Or who the annoying guest narrator was in Chidley’s The Wish Child?
Actually, an odd narrator jumps into Golden Hill too, just a couple of times, and appears at the end as the unlikely author. I bet Spufford had to argue to get that one past his editor.
But read this book for the creaking of rigging from the ships riding at anchor and the stink of the town: “A little fish, a little excrement; guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes.” Yum.
Look up cloacal if you don’t know what it means. I love a book that has better vocab than my spell check.
And here’s a description of a staircase that puts you inside an old, dark, Dutch house (think of the rich tones in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring): “Stray gleams of polish showed the placing of the banisters and newel posts; picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s-worth of distant constellations.”
Lots of his descriptions are like this; layered, multi-sensual, slightly chaotic.
There is a character cast that reflects the theme of the book, which boils down to the fact that things are not what they seem. “I know why a magician claps his hands,” says the inconstant Tabitha, who begins as the pretty daughter of the banker but turns into so much more: trickster, betrayer, love interest, caustic fence, forgiver, and eventually – well. Read the book. She is one of the most interesting characters I have met for a long time, but you have to work it out. They didn’t know in the 18th Century. Septimus is not just the foppy Governor’s man, Terpie takes her clothes off, Smith shocks the town and the slave Archilles – but here again the author claps his hands and your attention is diverted elsewhere.
I am respecting the tradition of book reviews here by keeping mum, but there is a VERY BIG ELEPHANT on this page and I want to tell you to come back when you have read the ending so we can discuss what a £1,000 buys in the market in New York and what it all means. Did you think it was just a romping travel story?
Clap clap. Think again.