Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber, 2016)
Introduced by Mark Meynell
Francis Spufford is incapable of writing a dull word. I loved his The Child that Books Built, was fascinated by Red Plenty: Inside the Fifties’ Soviet Dream and thoroughly enjoyed the panache (if not always the case made) of Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.
This is his first full-blown fiction (though Red Plenty was a literary hybrid with some great fictional sections) – and it is set in colonial New York City in 1746 when it had only 7000 inhabitants. But book’s genius and joy are derived from our full immersion into eighteenth-century life, idioms, preoccupations, prejudices and worldview and all. Throw in a gripping trajectory of plot-twists and jaw-drops set in an utterly compelling and intriguingly alien historical stage set – and you have historical fiction at its very best. Spufford recreates the language and style of the moment in what seems like tone-perfect detail.
The protagonist Richard Smith, fresh off the boat from England, is on a mission whose nature is only revealed in the final pages. Like all of New York, we are kept guessing right until the end – and I exhausted the possibilities for why he might want to transfer £1000 transatlantically long before banking could occur in nanoseconds. But he blunders his way through this deceptively welcoming society, not necessarily because of impetuosity (though I can see why his father and others accuse him of such) but because he is an archetypal outsider. He is fated not to get it right.
But there are laugh-out-loud moments a plenty because of the vivid cast of Dutch, English and colonials, and slaves. The narrative allows for a sequence of fantastic set-pieces – just as one would expect in Georgian novels. In fact, I kept on thinking of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones as I read. [There’s a nice conceit in that Tabitha, main female protagonist, hates novels, but does love Shakespeare – her strained relationship with Smith is discussed more than once in terms of Beatrice and Benedict, though they agree emphatically that neither is apt!] We are taken to coffee houses, merchant’s houses and dockland warehouses, the courtroom, box pews in church, makeshift prison cells, mobs and thieves, Christmas feasts, am-dram performances, and even a gentleman’s duel at dawn. All thrum with exuberant life.
Spufford indulges in wonderful turns of phrase (“If we may, please God, dispense with any more of this spoony mumchancing” – genius!) and knowing asides to the reader (either to share his narrative enthusiasms or bemoan the difficulties of describing the rules of obscure card games). What is so impressive is how it all serves the political purpose of the book, while keeping it remarkably light on its feet. We’re never bogged down in historical detail or significance (remember, it is set only a generation or so before the American revolution). And yet, Richard Smith is a thoroughly contemporary figure, helping us to witness the past’s foreign country through his sympathetic but often uncomprehending eyes.
So I can’t recommend this enough (as perhaps will be obvious). I hope Spufford sets his pen to something fictional again.