Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York
By Francis Spufford
336 pages, $26
Cambridge writer Francis Spufford’s (1964 - ) new novel, “Golden Hill,” is the best I’ve read since Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Underground Railroad.” It is Spufford’s first piece of fiction after his Orwell Prize-nominated “Red Plenty,” a history of the USSR during a brief period under Khrushchev, and four other critically acclaimed nonfiction pieces.
“Golden Hill” is a picaresque tale of a young Londoner, Mr. Smith, who leaves England for New York and arrives in late November 1746. Remember what picaresque novels are up to? They're an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.
Smith debarks his ship, the brig Henrietta, anchored off Tietjes Slip in Manhattan, then a modest harbor. (London had a population that year of 700,000, New York, about 7,000.)
He is in search of a Mr. Lovell of Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street. There he wishes to present Lovell, the merchant who runs a counting house, with a bill drawn upon him by his London correspondents for 1,000 pounds sterling. In short, Lovell owes his London counterparts this sum of money.
On meeting Smith, who may just be a traveling mountebank, Lovell postpones payment, since he has no details about this traveler in his doorway. Not only that, the clock on the wall is showing one minute to 5, closing time. Thus this captivating and mysterious novel begins.
“Golden Hill” is a novel of place, and its richness of description and 18th century expression beggars the imagination. It is an extraordinary re-creation. So much so, that on winning the book’s latest prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s prestigious Ondaatje prize of 10,000 pounds, the author joked about its imaginativeness, remarking, “Since all that remains … that I evoked in my book is a street plan and a metal railing, I feel that I must point out that I made it all up.”
A brief quote from “Golden Hill” will help you sense the style and pace of the writing, which may remind some readers of another English novelist, Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754), who wrote “Tom Jones.”
Here’s the setup: Mr. Smith is out for a walk from his lodgings: “He had been strolling the city’s meanest quarter for minutes, and yet no street-Arab children pepper-pointed with sores had circled him round, no gummy crones exhaling gin had plucked his sleeve, no mutilated men in the rags of uniform had groaned at him from the ground. He wandered at his ease among strangers who seemed universally blessed with health and strength and moderate good luck, at least, in life’s lottery.”
These observations are the result of what Smith calls “the lovely power of being a stranger.” It is a description that he later amends. He calls himself “the unreckonable stranger” when among Lovell's merchant friends and family.
So who is Smith? Word spreads “all around the town that he has arrived with a fortune in his pocket,” and later that he is either a “Saracen conjuror, and quite possibly an agent of the French.”
In his travels on foot, he is robbed of pocket money which he cannot recover. He runs after the snatcher. "The goal of his chase was slipping deftly between backs, round corners, up alleyways ... Nothing, nobody. Nobody in sight at all ..."
It was at this point that Smith, near exhaustion, visits what he calls a "temple to coffee." Here he meets Septimus Oakshott, the secretary to the governor who later becomes his best friend, and Hendrick Van Loon, another merchant (with the same name as a famous Dutch popular historian), in the same place.
Smith loves coffee and there are many temples to coffee in this novel. He has the “urgent first cup, the necessary second, to the voluntary third which might be toyed with at leisure.”
“You are the very rich boy who won’t answer questions,” Oakshott says, sitting at his table. He later adds: “I don’t know what game you purpose to play here. I think I don’t care to know, unless you force me to take notice. But let me give you a warning. This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do.”
As the novel progresses, there are some wonderful writerly asides. For example, Spufford offers, “What, if anything, Mr. Smith confessed, this history must not tell … The operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding … Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne … Not much redemption is to be looked for, in a novel, when we lean so materially upon the visible and the audible … .” Reader, be warned: You’re being thrown off track on purpose here.
Of course the reader wants to know why all the mystery and hint of darkness. And it takes Tabitha, one of Lovell’s daughters, who is brisk by nature, to begin to unmask Mr. Smith’s mystery. Tabitha is lame and confined, the result of an accident with barrels in the warehouse. It was there that she broke her leg when she was 15.
Smith is smitten by Tabitha, who does not need to pursue him, even if she could. “He was already caught” by her spunky charm, says Spufford. Tabitha doesn’t care for novels, one of which Smith has given her. She tells him they are “slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased.”
The mystery of Smith’s purpose remains until the end. Spufford’s format using the third person narrative and an “era-appropriate style” has great charm for those who love suspense. Alternately, it will drive other readers mad who want a quick reveal. There are a plenitude of feints and hints that lead one elsewhere while looking for the real deal. It’s a literary design well used that 18th century novelists did to a fare-thee-well.
“Golden Hill” is a lively entertainment with comic overtones. But it gives over to darker elements including murder. It is described as playing a deep game of rules by one’s making, and not attending to other games by others whose rules are not fathomed.
Sound mysterious? Not if you follow the action closely.
Hold out to the end and see what he means by that. It's not all bad.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.