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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.

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