“if our secrets define us, as opposed to the face we show the world: then the painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am. And it’s there: in my notebooks, every page, even though it’s not. Dream and magic, magic and delirium. The Unified Field Theory. A secret about a secret.”
Theo Decker, the protagonist of Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel The Goldfinch contemplates the way Carel Fabritius’s painting of the same name has dominated his life, a complicated connection beginning with the shocking opening as his mother is killed in a terrorist bomb blast in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in their hometown of New York. He escapes with a ring given to him by a dying man – to take to an old furniture restorer – and his mother’s favourite painting: The Goldfinch.
His life takes its turns from there, Theo trying to keep the painting hidden, a paranoia about it, and a passion for it that almost drives him mad. We come to know the people who, in his mother’s absence, will dominate his life: his gambler of a father; his friend Boris, a kindred spirit that he spirals out of control with in the bleached out and desolate sands of a Vegas suburb; a girl who is the love of his life from start to finish; the furniture restorer whose great kindness is not so well repaid, and a wealthy Manhattan family.
He slides through his adolescence and into an adulthood addicted to pills, wrestling with depression, until he receives some shocking news which precipitates his being drawn into a criminal underworld half a world away.
The book succeeds so resoundingly because of Tartt’s detail; storytelling that immerses you utterly in Decker’s life because it is so vividly nuanced, rich. It is mahogany-hard in its realness, autobiographical almost. But Tartt goes much further than tell a story. Decker’s journey, his surfeit of feeling and rich reflection on his regrets, his pain and of course, most vividly his love, progresses into an almost dream-like finale where he comes to contemplate the nature of self and the notion of a continuum with art. To what extent did the painting represent him, its subject matter a rich metaphor for his life? What is our relationship with immortal works of art? I’m sure Tartt intended this introspection on our behalf as the finale ploughs its deep philosophical ground. This is an unforgettable book.
“Losing one’s faith is so very like gaining it. There is the same joy, the same terror, the same annihilation of self in the ecstasy of understanding…One has to lose one’s faith many times before one begins to lose faith in faith itself.”
I include here my thoughts and my recommendation for The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman because it shares with The Goldfinch a fabulous immersion and a narrative that raises, indirectly here, its own deeper questions. Alderman has delivered a pungent, flinty Jerusalem you can taste and smell and it empowers her stories of Jesus and those around him; stories about his mother, Judas, Caiaphas and Barrabas. These bit players in his life are here given their own rich lives, each capable of leading a novel in themselves, each to varying degrees touched by who Jesus was. By immersing them so vividly in a land and time of which so little is really known – Galilee and Jerusalem being backwaters in the Roman Empire as far as its own historians are concerned – Alderman’s research and fine prose gives an almost ‘photo-realistic’ quality to their lives and their passions. The book is ambiguous in respect of the theology, neutral as a camera or a historian would be in depicting Jesus debating, or the riots against the Romans. These are powerful vignettes against a violent backdrop simmering with the threat of rebellion.
Having read the eminent historian E.P.Sanders’ life of Jesus which stripped away the fervour of the Gospels’ message for the reality of the time, there is the same maddening question for us reading this fictional treatment of the world around Jesus as there are for the historians attempting to piece together the origin of Christianity. Why, of all those who proclaimed to be the Messiah, did this man, little known and little mourned in his own lifetime before a relatively modest number of disciples, catch fire in the minds of those who heard his word so that, only a few hundred years later, he had conquered Rome? It is, incidentally, a kind of great revenge, this subsequent deification, that creates the book’s most satisfying twist, as it sets itself against the more literal and darker advocate of Jews under the Romans’ heel, Barrabas, Jerusalem’s principle gangster.
Alderman creates a beautiful and quite, well, christian moral out of the aftermath of the book’s critical scene, where Barrabas and Jesus face Pilate in order to determine their fates. What we know well enough is that the course of history was decided with the outcome of that conversation. Alderman finds a unique angle from which to create an account of that fateful event; a beautiful, masterful dialogue that seals the fate of the world.