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We're having infrastructure issues here at Desperation Acres. Internet outage first, then a power outage this morning. The joys of rural life. Nevertheless, we persist. Here's the first review of the 2017-18 season. Don't forget to click the link for more reviews!
By Francis Spufford
Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2016
If TOM JONES novelist Henry Fielding traveled from the 18th century, acquired a 21st century sensibility and approach to novel-writing, he’d try very hard to write GOLDEN HILL. It may be, though, that only Francis Spufford could actually do it. A celebrated writer of nonfiction ( I MAY BE SOME TIME and RED PLENTY, for example), he admits to having “come close to being a novelist” while turning, say, Britain’s obsession with icy places into a page-turner. Now, he says, “I’ve completed my shy, crabwise crawl towards fiction.”
GOLDEN HILL reads as an exuberant, occasionally raunchy adventure in the Manhattan of 1746, just like Fielding and friends except that the narrator doesn’t sidetrack into unrelated topics for pages and pages. Also, this novel has a very modern set of teeth in it.
Our story begins when a youngish man, known to us chiefly as Mr. Smith, arrives in New York with a promissory note for a thousand pounds, which he aims to cash at a counting house run by a Mr. Lovell. Consternation ensues: Is this promissory note real, or is Smith a con man? If it is real, there’s not enough cash in all of New York to pay off the note, even if you combine the available coins (Mexican, Portugese, Dutch, Danish and so on) with the more common paper money printed by New York, Rhode Island, or any of the colonies.
Smith is charming enough to be a con man. But he’s clearly well educated and widely traveled, a man of parts who could perfectly well be a sprig of the nobility. In fact, he does agree to wait for verification of his note on the next ship from London, as an honest man would.
And off he goes into the streets of New York.
Manhattan is practically a village at this point. Dutch and English live side by side, more or less in harmony. Smith notices that people are much healthier than in London, taller, well fed, and with fewer smallpox scars. He also notices the black slaves, which seem to be more prevalent than in England.
He notices the slaves a lot. They’re important to him. We don’t find out why until the story is three-quarters done, and the full tale emerges only in the last pages. Even the narrator’s identity is a surprise left to the end. The author is canny about the way he keeps us on tenterhooks, doling out a hint here, an insight there. You know you’re being played and you love it.
Being the talk of the town, Smith soon is embroiled in New York politics. He starts a romance, playing Benedick to her Beatrice. He finds out potentially fatal secrets. Is nearly killed by a mob that thinks he’s a papist. Is imprisoned for this and that, stands trial, betrays his own ethics.
In other words, he is extremely entertaining. So is this book. I hope Mr. Spufford sticks to novel- writing.
(Dear FCC: This book was a birthday present, chosen by my beloved with help from Samantha Haskell of Blue Hill Books. All hail the independent bookstore. Also beloveds.)