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Friday, 30 May 2014


"Every shrink, every career counsellor, every Disney princess knows the answer: 'Be yourself'. 'Follow your heart.'
What if the heart, .....leads one....straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?" (p.761)

The central question of this book is, What if you cannot trust yourself? How do you live, if - because of damage, because of trauma - every instinct you have is self destructive?

The book's central character and narrator is Theo, a child of fourteen when we first meet him. He is caught up in an explosion in an art museum, where he is injured and his mother dies.

The Goldfinch of the title is the name of a painting that Theo takes with him when he staggers out of the smoky remnants of the blown up building. It is priceless, the work of a Dutch master of the sixteenth century.

Theo's tale, after the death of his mother, is one of a series of disasters, or near disasters. There is the bomb, which is the originator of all of the other problems of his life. He then goes to live with his neglectful, addict father in Las Vegas, falls in with Boris, who is even more damaged than Theo. His father dies, Theo returns to New York, and soon becomes an addict himself, reduced to fraud to fund his lifestyle.

Through it all is the painting, The Goldfinch. Theo keeps it through all of his travails, brings it to Las Vegas and then back to New York where he stores it in an anonymous storage facility. Though he goes years without looking at it, it is important for him just to have it.

The painting is a symbol of something, it an object from the last day that he saw his mother alive, it is something beautiful, an object from his childhood. It becomes something, the only thing, that Theo has to hold on to in his chaotic world.

In truth the book is too long, there are many scenes and parts that could have been shortened or cut completely. It gets a bit repetitive, when we learn about Boris and Theo's life in Las Vegas, and then about his dissolute, aimless, addict's existence in New York. Scenes are repeated, or almost so, there are details that are unnecessary, it needs a good editor.

Still, it is a compelling read. The first third is a bit slow, but once Boris, Theo's eccentric Ukranian friend, enters the picture, the book attains a richer texture, and a fascinating, intriguing character.

Boris is a year older than Theo - who he constantly calls "Potter", after Harry - and is a kind of orphan who moves around with his alcoholic, hopeless, violent father from city to city with his father's job.

Boris too is a drinker, and a druggie, but he and Theo form this airtight, all-encompassing friendship that is the best thing in the book. They are both damaged, neglected, practically parent-less, and so become each other's family, two inseparable halves of the one unit.

Boris disappears for years in the middle of the narrative, and it is only when he reappears that the story picks up again, gains some kind of momentum and vibrancy.

His character is the beating heart at the centre of the story. Though he and Theo are so inseparable for so long, Boris is really the counterpoint to Theo and his melancholy, he is energy and vitality and invention, and brings his own particular kind of entertaining chaos to the novel.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize this year. Whether it deserves this is an open question, but it is a book that is worth reading, if only for the sprawl of its narrative, and power of the storytelling, and the mischievous, charismatic, vibrant portrayal of its secondary characters.

Thursday, 29 May 2014


This is a bizarre book.

It is hard to really know what to think or say about it, but it probably helps to just give an outline of the plot.

The narrator and protagonist is Harry Silver, an academic who lives in New York State. The book tells the story of twelve months in Harry's life, from one Thanksgiving to the next.

In the space of a short number of days Harry's life is turned upside down. His brother, George, kills his wife and is in turn incarcerated, so Harry is left as guardian of his niece and nephew. He moves into his brother's house when his own wife, Claire, divorces him.

From there, we get a succession of eccentric characters, a lot of old, senile people coming and going in the narrative, and apparently unconnected and random events happening every second page.

Some of these events are disturbing, like his niece's female teacher engaging in a semi-sexual relationship with the girl. Many are apparently purposely random, like when Harry's nephew Nate decides to have his bar mitzvah in a little village in South Africa. Others are seemingly pointlessly bizarre, like the frankly stupid experimental "wilderness" prison that Harry's brother is sent to instead of a normal jail.

That said, the narrative is relentless, it draws you in and, once you have accepted that there is nothing here that makes a lot of sense, it becomes compelling, in a weird sort of way.

Harry, again for reasons not explained very well, is a Nixon scholar, and has an unusual obsession with the ex-president. Part of his journey is in coming to terms with his life's work, and the book that he has been writing on Nixon for fifteen years.

Along the way, as well as his niece and nephew, Harry gathers in a strange coterie of strays and orphans. He somehow ends up taking care of the elderly parents of a girl he has a brief relationship with. He also adopts the son of a couple that his brother killed in a car crash.

There is redemption, of sorts towards the end. Harry finally discovers a purpose for his life in looking after the three children, two pets and two elderly people that he has picked up along the way. He is fulfilled by the connection that he forms with these people, and his life is given meaning by their need of him.

Yet it is difficult to take the story seriously in many places, it reads like the writer is simply making things up as she goes along, chancing her arm with one strange plot point after another.