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  • Articles by Susan

    Book review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

    Pacey and fizzily plotted, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is a breathless romp of a novel. The year is 1746, and Mr Smith, a glib tongued and amiable English charmer, is newly pitched up in Manhattan with an order for one thousand pounds in his pocket.

    Needing to redeem the money, an enormous sum in those times, but with no one to vouch for him and refusing to explain himself, Smith is quickly the object of suspicion. Should the chary New York elite trust him, love him, or kill him? This is rip-roaring suspense fiction, with the truth withheld until the very end.

    Golden Hill pays deft tribute to 18th century novelists such as Henry Fielding, and Spufford, in his acknowledgements, refers to the book as a ‘colonial counterpart to Joseph Andrews, or David Simple’. 

    Narrated in the third-person, aptly so for the period, and with matching era-appropriate language, the text fairly crackles with life as Mr Smith weaves, bolts, sidles, slams, mobs and propels the reader, and the story, forwards. Above all though, it’s a fabulous recreation of a newly emerging New York as ‘rooftops and bell towers greeted him; a jumble, not much elevated, of stepped Dutchwork eaves and ordinary English tile, with the greater eminences of churches poking through, steepled and cupola’d, and behind a slow-swaying fretwork of masts’. It’s a beautiful prospect, and never veers into parody, or seems too slavishly reliant on historical research.  Language, description and a light touch with 18th century punctuation, all serve to support the ingenious and technically shrewd plot.

    But my goodness, after three hundred tightly packed pages, and even given the darkening tone as Mr Smith’s secrets are revealed, I gasped for some relief at the relentless hustle of it all.