Francis Spufford is an author that authors that I love, love. Alan Jacobs yet again yesterday expressed his admiration for Spufford. And this novel in particular has been talked about for a couple of years. (It was published in the UK in 2016 and Jacobs had an advanced copy of it.) Wesley Hill, John Wilson and others I follow on twitter have also lavished praise on it. It was also on a number of best of 2017 lists (NPR, WSJ, Washington Post, Kurkus, Library Journal, etc).
Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City. A mysterious young man comes to New York with a letter of credit (as would be common at the time so that a traveler would not have to carry a lot of cash) for an extraordinarily large amount of money but a resistance to telling anyone what he was interested in doing with the money. The book follows his story for several months. I won’t really give much more detail about the plot other than that.
It has been several days since I finished Golden Hill because I was not sure how to write a review. The longer I wait the more I like it. Spufford has a way with words. One of the things that is most impressive is that the book, especially the letters within the book, are written to mimic the 18th century, but it is still quite readable for a modern reader.
What gave me pause about Golden Hill, apart from the wonderful use of language, is how standard the plot felt. There was a little intrigue, a little romance, some tragedy. The historical fiction aspect felt a little modern projection at times, but each of the details I was sure were too modern for the time, when I checked, were historically accurate. Within the book, the characters put on one of Shakespeare’s plays and the play’s themes work most out into the story. It felt standard, but as I reflect back on it, it was much more tightly plotted and meaningful than it appears on the surface.
However, as standard as the main body of Golden Hill felt, the last few pages had two plot twists that changed the entire book in my mind from solid but unremarkable, to incredible.
So I started reading reviews from others. Amazon has just over 200 reviews and they are 76% 4 or 5 star reviews, which is not especially high. Many I think just didn’t appreciate the language and were bored by the surface-level plotting. I really wonder if several of the lowest reviews actually finished. The professional reviews are universally positive. I think that the best reviews were in New York Times and the Guardian. If you are a fan of books that are often called literary fiction, you should pick this up.
The only other book of Spufford’s I have read is his Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, which is also excellent. To say his books are wide-ranging is a bit of an understatement. He has written a novel, a defense of Christianity, a book on children’s books, a fictionalized history of 1950s Russia, a history of British modern technological innovation, a book on polar exploration, and a collection of essays. None of the books really build on the others. I am not sure what I will read next, but I will read another of his books relatively soon. Although, I also want to re-read Golden Hill again, now that I know the two plot twists to see what I may have missed.