Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford - Book Review

Golden Hill:A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford (Scribner, 2017, 320 pages, $17.08/13.99) set in New York City during the early winter of 1746, is a superb historical novel written in the style of the eighteenth century British novelists of manners like Smollett, or perhaps Fielding, as Spufford points out. The language, never forced, flows at a smooth and leisurely pace, moving the plot along while allowing plenty of time to include color, vivid environment, and carefully drawn characters, whose consistency of behavior leads the reader towards developing strong ideas about them as the book progresses. The balance between gripping plot and well-defined characters yields a novel worthy of attention and always yielding pleasure.

Golden Hill opens with Mr. Smith eager to debark from his ship, newly arrived from England, along with a very heavy strong box suggesting great wealth, into a middling village perched precariously on the tip of an island on the eastern edge of the vast North American continent. It's Halloween, as Smith debarks to begin his mysterious assignment. On the morning of his first day in Manhattan, Smith, looking over the city is robbed of most of the money he has exchanged, chases his assailant through the entire (small) extent of the city, goes to a coffee house for breakfast where he discovers how small New York really is, as he discovers he is the talk of the town...already. He meets some of the city's leading lights, and begins, slowly and carefully to establish relations and reveal himself. The carefully wrought period details of mid-eighteenth century New York begin to emerge in the fashion of a leisurely British novel of the time. The attention to detail and, apparently, historicity is both arresting and intriguing.

Smith desires to remain mysterious, unknown to both the people he meets and the reader. Asked to dinner with the city's merchant and political elite, he must figure how much of himself to reserve and how much to reveal. The difficulty of finding a balance surprises and challenges him, in an intriguing dance of getting to know the lay of the land, all presented in carefully created period language while Spufford reveals the issues and concerns confronting a city only a generation removed from the coming Revolution. He builds a convincing picture of intrigue and political maneuvering. He also, never breaking from his eighteenth century novelistic language and conventions, manages action scenes with strong suspense, during a heart racing run to escape a crowd of revelers on Guy Fawkes Day, while revealing additional elements of plot, too. Even at the point where Mr. Smith gets a first name, Spufford has managed to write arresting dialogue that impishly reveals it.

Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys, Red Plenty (which was translated into nine languages), and most recently, Unapologetic. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge, England. Golden Hill is his first novel. Golden Hill was named the Novel of the Year by the U.K's Sunday Times as well as winning the Costa First Novel Award.

Golden Hill:A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford (Scribner, 2017, 320 pages, $17.08/13.99) is Spufford's first novel As the narrative unrolls, the basic fault lines leading to the coming revolution are made increasingly clear: money, liberty, taxes, virtue, freedom from the yoke of British imperialism. Meanwhile, Smith's role in this often formalized dance still is not clear, but Spufford is a master of the slow reveal. The story of Mr. Smith is realized through the action, always mannered in the approximation of eighteenth century language and manners, and with the drive of a contemporary mystery thriller. The dynamics of family loyalty, national origin, business priority, love, and danger weave together through the story. Golden Hill stands as a mystery, a love story, a piece of history, all cloaked in manners, propriety, risk, and perhaps reward to come make Golden Hill a compelling read. The book was supplied to me as an advanced reviewers copy through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.  

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