Golden Hill by Francis Spufford - book review

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 03 August, 2016

The wily narrator teases and withholds in a novel packed with action and ideas.

Francis Spufford has written five works of non-fiction, including Red Plenty, a book about the USSR that hovered ingeniously on the border between fiction and fact. Now, with Golden Hill, he has launched into pure fiction, although it’s a novel stuffed with historically accurate detail.

This is a very clever book, richly researched, strikingly written, packed with action and brimming with ideas. It’s lovingly decorated with artifacts of the era, spiced with nods and winks at the literary style to which it pays tribute, an 18th-century romp with swashbuckling characters, romance, sex, slaves, spies, chase scenes, fights and even a duel.

In 1746, the mysterious Mr Smith arrives on Manhattan Island in New York. He has come from London and smoothly produces, to the amazement of local merchants, a money order for the vast sum of £1000. His arrival creates a sensation in the town, making him the immediate focus of drama and intrigue. Who is this dark, handsome stranger? Is his money order genuine? And what should they think of him?

To the reader, Mr Smith remains opaque. His real business is a mystery withheld by our narrative driver as we rollick wildly about the town. His impenetrability is the lure, and is also slightly his creator’s problem, perhaps because subtleties of character sustain plot as much as action. The danger here is that the intriguing Mr Smith is so obscured beneath the weight of endless set pieces that we, who are keen to know and like him, will lose our sense of him altogether.

Our wily narrator, who is also a nifty fictional device, is too coy by half, and thoroughly unwilling to explain, lest it spoil the surprise. Why the thrilling chase through the streets that ends with swinging ropes and rooftops? Why the £1000? Why the sheet of paper in the locked box? The answers may madden or delight you, depending on your nature: keep faith, dear reader, for all will be revealed.

For those who relish fast action, thrills and laughs, this works. And it’s beautifully written. For the reader who enjoys a narrative that unfolds character as it goes, providing subtleties, surprises and shocks without need of bangs and crashes, it’s more a matter of being patient. As with movies: the car chase may make your hair stand on end, but that’s never going to be enough for some.

GOLDEN HILL, by Francis Spufford (Faber, $36.99)

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