Golden Hill, Francis Spufford
By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017
Golden Hill, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, is the debut fiction title written by Francis Spufford, acclaimed for his non-fiction publications. Set in 1746 New York, Spufford writes in the style of the time, which adds elegance and authenticity to the text, allowing the reader to more easily immerse themselves in the 18th century. I must say that, before Golden Hill, I read My Name is Leon, a simple story written from the perspective of a child. Therefore, it was a shock to begin Spufford’s novel and navigate through the complex description and dialogue. This extreme contrast between styles meant I struggled through the first dozen pages, but then quickly acclimated and lost myself in the beautifully illustrative prose. I particularly appreciated Spufford’s decision to break the fourth wall several times. The narrator humorously apologises for their inability to describe events such as a piquet game, creating welcome comical interludes in the tense scenes.
Spufford’s tale follows Mr. Smith, newly arrived from London, with a £1000 bill in his possession. He immediately arouses suspicion over the authenticity of the note, causing a stir among all manner of New Yorkers. Their fears are far from quelled by Smith’s refusal to disclose his purpose for being in New York or to deny insinuations that he is a fraud.
The mystique surrounding Smith is maintained throughout the novel, as the reader is kept in suspense about his past and purpose until the very end. While keeping key information that the protagonist knows from the reader can intensify the hunger to read on to solve the mystery, I eventually found the constant speculation over Smith’s authenticity tiresome, and my eagerness turned into impatience as I waited for the truth to be revealed. However, despite this, Golden Hill’s plot is far from tedious.
Trouble seems to follow Smith wherever he goes; he finds himself involved in a number of dangerous altercations and in unfortunate circumstances, including a duel and a jail (‘gaol’) cell. Spufford weaves a rich narrative, interspersing these action-packed, near-death experiences with depictions of social gatherings and holiday celebrations. The glimpses into New York’s social scene introduces a host of tragic, amusing and kind-heart characters, my personal favourite being Tabitha, the banker’s daughter. Tabitha’s quick wit and sharp tongue strongly reminds me of Katherine in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with whom Tabitha is compared. I thoroughly enjoyed the verbal sparring matches between Tabitha and her father’s houseguests and I eagerly watched as Smith began to fall for her. Unfortunately, Spufford’s magnificent descriptive writing dominates the book, leaving me wishing a deeper exploration of the supporting characters (like Tabitha) had been included.
Nevertheless, Golden Hill is a masterpiece of language, unmatched by any modern books I have read in the last few years. It is a fascinating story full of excitement, risk, and mystery, bringing to life a New York that is nearly unrecognizable today.
Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber