Friday, June 23, 2017

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford


“Nothing short of a masterpiece.” The Guardian

The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution.

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill is a story “taut with twists and turns” that “keeps you gripped until its tour-de-force conclusion” (The Times, London). Spufford paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble.


There is much to laud with this novel. First, the author did an exceptional job at bringing to life 18th century New York city. Secondly, there is the intriguing plot - the premise of a stranger landing on the shores with a vast amount of money and then being robbed of it shortly thereafter and his dire circumstances landing him in gaol not once, but twice. Thirdly, there are numerous fascinating characters with plenty of quirks. Altogether, these three points made the story unforgettable. 

I have to admit, it took me several tries to begin reading this book. My biggest obstacle was the extremely long, rambling opening sentence (about 1 page long). It was a bit of a struggle to convince myself to keep reading. The next obstacle I struggled with was the "rich prose" which made engaging with the story a bit challenging. In between plot twists, sometimes the story dragged a bit. An abundance of uncommon words and complex sentences throughout the book kept pulling me out of the story to look up words or to re-read passages. 

Having said that, I was captivated by the story. I can see why it is an award winning novel. I also can see why the prose is considered so rich. The descriptions and use of humor and a bit of sarcasm truly overcame the complexities of the words, sentences, and phrases. I loved all the main characters, but my favorite was the smelly, drunk prisoner, Capting! I enjoyed the twists and turns, the betrayals, and the ever evolving characters that always managed to surprise me. Despite my criticisms, this is a wonderful book, well worth reading. I definitely recommend it!