Donna Tartt’s three novels can all be described as psychological thrillers, but they are experienced as a sequence of highs and crashes, binges and hangovers. Characters are infatuated, confused, guilty, anxious; they suffer hallucinations and nightmares and nearly lose all control. In Tartt’s bestselling debut, The Secret History (1992), a clan of chic Classics students attending an elite Vermont college murder a local farmer while in the throes of a drug-induced bacchanal; throughout, characters distract themselves with Greek poetry and dinner parties, self-medicating with alcohol and sleeping pills. Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend (2002), set in 1970s Mississippi, also begins with a brutal death – a child hanged in the back garden – which leaves its large cast of characters either dazed with depression or manic with mistaken theories.
The narrator of Tartt’s new novel is Theodore Decker, a young New Yorker similarly drawn to emotional extremes and hedonism. The Goldfinch begins in an Amsterdam hotel where he is in hiding, delirious with flu and reading about his crimes in the local newspaper (like The Secret History, this is a back-to-front kind of detective story). The real action, however, is set in motion by a suspenseful episode in which a bomb is detonated in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where 13-year-old Theo and his mother have been viewing an exhibition of Dutch old masters. The bomb kills Theo’s mother and several others; the boy escapes but suffers a concussion which, in a sense, lasts for the rest of this 784-page novel, in which he veers between shock, grief, heartache, and a reliance on pharmaceuticals. The tone is permanently heightened; like a Dutch painting, every scene is described in glittering detail and framed with retrospective melancholy. “There was something festive and happy about the two of us,” Theo remembers of his mother, “hurrying up the steps beneath the flimsy candy-striped umbrella, quick quick quick, for all the world as if we were escaping something terrible instead of running right into it … ”
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