This is my first ever review (for want of a better word) for the online book club for mums that Jess Ashe and I manage called #MotherBookers… to join in with us and read along, then blog, vlog or simply discuss next month’s or any future book simply search #MotherBookers on Facebook and join the closed group.
Last night I finished the Goldfinch.
First things first: let’s talk about the length of this book. It’s a behemoth at 864 pages. Yes at times it felt too long, and over the last 6 weeks occasionally I wandered away from it, dipping into self help books and even a factual book about Labradors. It’s the biggest book I’ve ever read actually. And for someone with stickability issues it was tough at times. But I think I understand why it was so long.
It’s an epic book: it tells the story of a young boy, Theo, who experiences a great tragedy – and then the ensuing life he leads until the age of 27. There’s a lot to get through; and there also isn’t a lot to get through. It’s that type of book. Full of paradoxes, polar ideas and big themes. See, in much of the novel not much happens. Not in a page-turning, plot driven, action-oriented way. Everything that really happens is inside of Theo. The length mirrors the internal, inescapable hell he is going through. It’s not even hell as you might expect for much of the book; it’s a day to day, kind of depressive inertia. Nothingness. Keeping under the radar. Avoiding study. Taking drugs to escape his reality. He lives but he’s existing, surviving. He is capable of so much more but he can’t properly access life from the deep hole he is in.
The loss of his mother (sorry for the spoiler, I don’t feel like we can talk about the book without alluding to it, and it does happen at the start) is the ever present backdrop to this book. The true gift that Tartt has is to write about so many things whilst not really talking about her that much at all. Yet it is all about her. She’s on every page. People say the loss of a child is the worst thing, and it is. But in that scenario the poor lost child is asleep, to suffer no more. In this case we watch as the child, the innocent, has his whole world destroyed and tries to live. The ongoing suffering of a child is hard to watch, especially as a mum.
The theme of loss – and it’s unending pain – is everything in this book. The description of his ongoing existence, with little joy or security, is all to one end: to convey his grief. How do you get something so monumental across? There are no words about the pain because it’s too big to convey. There’s just the aftermath. And that’s what we have here. It is a long meditation on grief. Of course, stuff happens, but at the centre of the novel is this event that events afterwards are a ripple effect of. The Goldfinch is a long meditation on loss.
The last bit of The Goldfinch achieves something so deep and so perfect that I think she fully deserved the Pulitzer. Whether you think the book boring or too long, which I think some people will, in the last few chapters Tartt, via Theo’s voice of course, manages to nail down what it is to be alive in such a way that I can’t really comment on other than to say: read it.
He talks about the otherness, the bit of us that lies between pain and love, living and dying, the thing that makes us human and is so hard to talk about, to capture, to define. In the book, art is the thing, the only thing that can come close to capturing this feeling, this… essence. For some it is music, or a novel (like this one?). But in this book it is the painting called The Goldfinch that captured life to his mother, and to Welty – another key character in the background. The picture is his Mother and he carries it around with him like an Albatross round his neck.
“…among the many, many things I’ve had time to think about (such as what’s worth living for? what’s worth dying for? what’s completely foolish to pursue?) I’ve been thinking a lot about what Hobie said: about those images that open up some much, much larger beauty that you can spend your whole life looking for and never find.”
The tragedy inherent in the book is made manifest and brought to the surface only when Theo is ‘actively’ depressed – which, actually, he is throughout of course. But on two occasions, both drug related, he goes very deep down into a place that Tarrt describes so searingly well it is truly terrifying. His assertion that life is a pointless cesspool, where we all eventually lose what we love (if we’re lucky enough to even find love, that is) is – paradoxically – liberating as he sees this as an opportunity to be who we truly are. Maybe there is no point in trying to be a good person, because, sometimes bad things turn out good – and vice versa. Just be you. This is all we can be.
His friend Boris (who is Russian, for your benefit when you read the passage below!) is a central character in the novel – he drives much of the action – and for me he represents the Freudian concept of the ‘id’: the true, raucous, primal and wild self. Theo wrestles with trying to be a ‘good person’, to be civilised – he’s about chasing the ‘ego’, the polished version of ourselves we present to the world. Boris however just is Boris. With his drugs, his awful past, his abusive father, his crime, his easy forgiveness of deplorable acts – even when done to him. He doesn’t set limits on what is good and what is bad; he just lives! He says later on that, for him, good and bad don’t really exist. We try to be good people… but what’s the point?
“…I have never drawn such a sharp line between good and bad… The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love I am doing best I know how… But you – wrapped up in judgement, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking “what if, what if.” “Life is cruel.” “I wish I had died instead of…” Well – think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre set? No no – hang on – this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that bring us round to good? What if some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
Ultimately, The Goldfinch is about fate. Yes, it’s a meditation on loss. But loss can’t happen without life. And fate controls life. Is fate real? Is everything pre-planned? Or is life a set of coincidences, a series of actions that mock us and we are powerless to? As Hobie says, “…Who was it that said coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous?”. How do we find meaning in life if this is the case?
The very thing that defined and destroyed Theo’s life he constantly wonders: was it meant to be that way? Why did it happen? Could my life have been different? When he visits his dead mother’s apartment not long afterwards and sees her things laying there untouched just as she left them he describes it as “…a stage set, waiting to be struck and carried away by movers in a uniform.”
The very meaning of life is right here in this book. Whether you believe in fate or coincidence, God or science, the only one thing that is real is love. And when we lose people we love we can only hope that one day we can be reunited with them. If not that, then we must find meaning in the things around us. In art, music, writing. These things have to tell our story. That, for me, is what the Goldfinch is about. And I absolutely loved it. A life-changing read.
“For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright immutable part of that immortality. It exists; and it keeps existing.”
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