Friday, July 7, 2017

Golden Hill

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York is being touted as Francis Spufford's first novel. I'll call it his second, because Red Plenty is clearly historical fiction in my book. Golden Hill is set in New York City in late 1746. It's a vibrant small city on the make, with plenty of wheeler dealers and political tensions... the kind of place where an outsider with ambitious plans should be plenty wary of sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

Enter our hero, Richard Smith, newly arrived from London with a check for a thousand pounds sterling (quite a small fortune) that he needs to cash in order to conduct some unknown business in town. Unknown, that is, until nearly the end of the novel, when we learn of Smith's mission. In the meantime, there is friendship, theatre, imprisonment, love, death, sex, and scandal. Oh, and currency, in multitudes of denominations and discounts.

Golden Hill is definitely a good yarn, if not in the same league as the genre-busting minor masterpiece Red Plenty. Spufford is an ambitious, clever writer; here he seeks to replicate some of the style of 18th-century literature... with mixed success. The rococo opening sentence, run-on and crammed with interjections, reads just about right to my ear. But Spufford can't always keep it up. The lengthy letter from jail in the book's middle didn't quite work for me. Some plot contrivances are a little pat. And the story seems to rush to its conclusion.

All that said, it's mostly a very good tale well told. The book imagines a quite believable pre-revolutionary Manhattan, with political, religious, and ethnic divisions lurking just beneath the surface; the main characters are well drawn and appealing. A chilly Christmas in Old New York may be just what you need for beach reading this summer.

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