I finished ploughing through this tome (published in 2013 by Little, Brown) and had to immediately go back and read the first few pages, as the book starts by plunging the reader into a strange, surrealistic almost nightmarish scenario of a person (man? woman?) constrained by unknown circumstances to remain in a hotel room in Amsterdam. The physical situation (a pretty standard hotel room) is described in great detail and then we are taken back in time to the situation of a young boy approaching what he expects to be a painful interview with the school principal, accompanied by his mother. The narrative voice is that of an adult, so that the device of presenting the narrator as a young boy does not come across as convincing at all.
From there the narrative takes off, whirling the reader through the mind of the anxious child, the chance entry into the museum (in New York), and the explosion (what the analysts call the ‘inciting incident’) which kills the boy’s mother, brings him into contact with a dying elderly man who tells the boy to take a small painting, the goldfinch of the title. In the museum the narrator has seen a young girl, whose image haunts him.
The ‘inciting incident,’ i.e., the explosion, is described at inordinate length, as is the long and tortuous route the boy takes to get out of the museum. This turns out to be a feature of the book as a whole, setting sudden acts of violence or twists and turns of the narrative against long and tedious descriptions or accounts of events. The various situations in which the main protagonist finds himself are all given at great and excessive length and in wearisome detail. And so, we experience the boy’s feelings as he waits in vain in their apartment for his mother’s return, is taken in by his best friend’s wealthy family, is then transported to Las Vegas to live with his less-than-successful father and the father’s girlfriend, strikes up a friendship with Boris, another half-abandoned boy, with whom he experiments extensively with drugs, and his eventual escape back to New York in the company of a small white dog, eventually reaching the antique shop once owned by the elderly man in the museum and now run by a large, kind man called Hobie. This is the situation in which the boy remains for the rest of his story, and the antique shop and the antiques trade form the focus of the rest of the action.
The narrator continues to describe his life up to the point where he is holed up in the hotel in Amsterdam, along the way introducing a host of interesting characters, some friendly, others ominous, but most of whom are depicted in a convincing way. There is also a renewed encounter with Boris, his friend from Las Vegas, now grown up and involved in some kind of shady deals, though nothing is spelled out very clearly. Boris is originally from Russia, and his way of speaking and accent are depicted with devastating and entertaining accuracy. The narrator gets involved willy-nilly in a violent and eventually fatal attack in an attempt to retrieve the painting he himself once stole from the museum, and this explains his situation at the beginning of the book.
In between the longeurs of the descriptive passages and accounts of situations that could and should have been cut in the editorial process are brilliantly evocative accounts of feelings, events, individuals, and developments that almost take the reader’s breath away. Interspersed with all these are passages where, instead of describing scenes or events the author simply lists a series of adverbs or adjectives, seeming to think that by doing so she is creating atmosphere. To me this simply reflects laziness, or weariness with the need to build a sentence rather than just giving a list of words. There are sections that display great knowledge of such diverse subjects as art, drugs, and antiques, and I found these both interesting and illuminating, though I’m not sure if that was the purpose of the book.
To sum up, this book has descriptive passages of luminous brilliance and insight and a narrative thread that pulls the reader onwards, alongside parts that are simply too long and almost unbearably tedious. Where was the editor in all this?