The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Intricate, intelligent and incredibly long; I bring to you the Goldfinch, renowned novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014.

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Set in the modern world, this novel follows Theodore Decker throughout his life, starting with the time as a teenager he survived a terrorist attack at an art gallery, but his mother did not. This  incident shapes the rest of the plot, and Theo’s character rapidly morphs into a miserable one as he, still a minor, is tossed from guardian to guardian, all the time guarding a secret. When he walked out of the gallery, he did not leave empty handed. Instead, he brought with him a masterpiece, the Goldfinch, and as Theo travels the country, the painting follows him. Until the aftermath of the attack has been cleared away, and people start to look for the priceless piece of art. Suddenly Theodore has a multitude of options, and things start to spiral out of everyone’s control.

Overall this was masterfully written, and I admire Tartt because she has created an admirable plot with extraordinary characters, written with the utmost of style, whilst still remaining quite realistic. This is harder to achieve than one initially anticipate; this is probably why she has been showered with awards. However, the Goldfinch is long. At first I leapt into it with an eager mind, but one’s level of commitment dwindles slightly by page 400, and by the time you’re 600+ you just want the book to finish. It has 864 pages, and by the end I was feeling every single one. The issue was, there is a section where Theo lives with his father in Vegas, and it drags on forever. It’s meant to signify I suppose the extent of the neglect that Theo faced, but that doesn’t mean I have to suffer through all those incidents too. That sections was simply unforgivingly slow paced and dull. Honestly, half of the book is about Theo taking various types of drugs and getting drunk: fine, show how his once ordinary life descended into addiction, but does the reader really need to witness every single shot glass he took to grapple with the idea? Clearly Tartt and I have contrasting views on this.

Also, the style of writing here is remarkable. Every page is crammed full of devices, (but not so that you’re just wading through metaphors and similes, trying to decipher a plot,) and it results in a clear idea of the shape of the scene. Having said it, it’s striking because whilst Tartt is so diligent with imagery on the one hand, at other times, she ‘tells’ the reader what is happening. Often, Tartt would just toss in; ‘Theo looked embarrassed’, or ‘Andy was angry’. Were they really? Can you see it on their faces, or is it they way they wring their hands? I thought this was irritating because Tartt is a gifted writer, and she could obviously describe their emotions, but chose not to.

The plot is interesting, but it is slow. Awfully slow- at times it was like running through knee-deep sand. You’re putting in so much time and effort to get somewhere (to the action in this case) but you remain rooted in the three page long description of a tea cup. To add to that, the climax is shoved into a very short space of time at the end, so it’s hardly like the action snowballs. It’s strange, because there is an in explicable wasteland of everyday actions; hundreds of pages dedicated to Theo going to school, Theo eating Chinese, Theo eating at a friend’s house, Theo walking his dog. All rather scintillating in its execution but ultimately unengaging stuff, and then suddenly there’s death and crime and blood everywhere. The Goldfinch would be multitudes better if it was 400 pages shorter.

I would recommend The Goldfinch to anyone who has lots of time. It is a great novel, but it has flaws too, one main one being it’s unnecessary length, so you will have to sacrifice a lot of time to get even vaguely close to finishing it in a reasonable amount of time. Other than that, it does explore large themes (like ‘why be good’ and ‘is there fate’) and contains some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.

Have you ever read The Goldfinch; what are your thoughts on it? Or, have you ever read another Pulitzer Prize winner- what did you think of it? What are your favourite books concerning the topic of art? Do comment below and let me know you’re thoughts.

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan

This novel is an amalgamation of witchcraft, murder and adventure. So much so, it is one of the best novels I have read this year. Although it shares the common themes of betrayal, family and courage with many other YA novels, due to the unusual setting that is New Poria, they are seen in an entirely different context.

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Julia can become unseen- a dangerous ability in a society where witches are publicly drowned in Cleansings. Dangerous, but useful, particularly if you’re a spy or a thief- and Julia is both. So when she was sent to work as a housemaid in the Och household, she resents the worknbecause it’s dull compared to the break-ins she normally performs, and the miscellaneous information she is ordered to find is probably meaningless. Bored, she seeks entertainment instead by observing the obscure assortment of people she shares a house with; a beautiful relative seeking refugee, a noble house guest locked away each night, a restless professor who sends Julia on the queerest errands, and a student who had the most desirable future within his grasp, and then threw it away. And if that isn’t enough to think about there’s a murderer prowling the streets; and from the trail of bodies discarded in plain sight, they are looking for something very particular, and Julia has a queasy feeling its something to do with the house she works for.

I thought that this was a fabulous yet haunting novel; I loved Julia because she was an intuitive, brave and slightly reckless street kid who we see develop throughout the novel as she learns, through several unforeseen incidents, what is truly integral to her. Julia is also cynical and often gritty; character traits which far too many YA protagonists avoid desperately. Actually, upon reflection, Julia’s character changes so vastly throughout the novel that by the end they are practically incomparable, but this isn’t unusual in novels and I have only noticed this detail with hindsight.

The alternate world fabricated by Egan also made it an invigorating read; it is lined heavily with the grime of witchcraft, oozes complex history and is a dystopia without being too utterly depressing or scarred by technology. In fact, the setting is more similar to Victorian times, and the most appropriate comparison would be to Philip Pullman’s world of the Northern Lights. My favourite aspect of the novel was definitely the setting, but because of the fast-paced nature of the plot, it is in my opinion under explored and there are so many exciting events that swirl on one after the other that there is no time to fully explore this magical wonderful world that Egan has created. I’m only saying this because it is clear that Egan has put lots of time creating this universe; from the small details about their custom- religions, to the government’s hierarchy, it is clear that there is a mass of things Egan isn’t telling us!

I would recommend Julia Vanishes for anyone who enjoys the darker spectrum of fantasy, no matter what age you happen to be. It is unique on many different levels and maintains throughout a mature attitude towards magic.  A genuinely great read which I loved- and I hope you will too!