‘You owe me a debt’

Golden-HillThis review will contain spoilers for Golden Hill.

 Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, which recently won both the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Costa First Novel Award, is a book that fully repays the initial effort it takes to get used to the slightly archaic version of eighteenth-century language that Spufford adopts (and to get through its tortuously and perhaps intentionally long first sentence). The set-up is strong: the mysterious Mr Richard Smith arrives in the small town of New York in 1746 demanding payment for a bill of a thousand pounds, and enough money to pay his way in the meantime. When Smith’s purse is snatched immediately after he acquires some petty cash (in the form of an eclectic mix of coins and scribbled papers), he’s forced to rely on his wits and chuztpah to hang on until his larger debt comes through.

Much of the joy of Golden Hill lies in its set-pieces, and so it can feel like a simple narrative of incident, as it traces Smith’s ability to get himself into one scrape after another. While the book meanders at first through a series of meetings in polite society, it suddenly lights up when Smith finds himself being chased by an angry mob after mishandling matters of etiquette as he shares a drink with other men around a Guy Fawkes bonfire. The trouble is foreshadowed by an ominous juggernaut travelling through the streets: ‘stuck with many torches, and bundles of hissing, sparking firecrackers; a moving, skirted mass as wide as the road, on which rose three monstrous heads, gleaming in lines of gleeful red where fresh paint had been applied to pates and noses and villainous grins.’ Only after it has long passed ‘did the crush slacken enough for Smith to sidle into the road and follow on, seeing the puppets’ chariot up ahead now as a slow-travelling blockade, a tight plug of fire and dancing demon shadows creeping between dark walls’. Smith has plenty of problems to come: he’s thrown into debtors’ prison, caught cuckolding a prominent member of New York society, challenged to a duel, then accused of murder. Yet Spufford makes quieter scenes as vivid as these moments of tension; in his description of a New York winter, for example: ‘The snow of streets was rammed by feet, drilled with holes where passers-by had pissed, and printed by horses’ hooves in confused stanzas of c’s, n’s and u’s. When the sun shone, loose handfuls of crystal hissed off the rooftops in prismatic eddies.’ (It was at about this point that I realised I had read something by Spufford before: his history of Antarctic exploration, I May Be Some Time).

Nevertheless, Golden Hill is not just a string of happenings, as gripping as these may be. It is linked by the reader’s discovery halfway through that Smith is ‘the grandson of a slave’: able to pass as white, he is undertaking a secret errand on behalf of his family. Golden Hill has an omniscient narrator, so we rarely hear Smith’s direct thoughts, and can only guess what he is thinking when he is cast as an African prince in a play and asks, ‘I was wondering… whether at the performance, you mean me to put on black-face?’, or when others ask him how he would like his bill paid (cash not being an option) and he says ‘Slaves?… Can you make me a bargain there?’. Smith’s eventual settling of his account puts his character in quite a different light from the libertine-like hero he might have seemed so far. Spufford’s style – which like Smith, moves between comic and tragic – also makes the book far more than just its plot. I’ve read very little eighteenth-century literature, but can hear the traces of Spufford’s inspirations in the Victorian fiction with which I’m more familiar. The narrator’s admission of ignorance as to how to describe a sword-fight, or a game of piquet, is particularly refreshing, and I was reminded of George Eliot when the narration deliberately head-hops in the middle of a scene: ‘She ran her hands into Smith’s wet hair, and he – But why always Smith?… Have we not heard quite enough already of Mr Smith’s desire, and seen Mrs Tomlinson quite sufficiently as he did?’ The identity of the narrator is revealed in a final epilogue which is a little masterpiece in its own right; I’m always more taken by good closing lines than good opening lines, which seem to me to be much easier, and Spufford gives us a memorable final sentence.

 I struggle with most historical fiction (not because it’s ‘inaccurate’, but because I’m never quite sure what most of it is meant to be doing) but Golden Hill is an exception. Clever with both its pastiche of historical style and its precise use of interesting fact, it never gets bogged down in its own setting. I hope Spufford continues writing fiction.

Thanks so much to the Desmond Elliot Prize for the free review copy of Golden Hill.

7 thoughts on “‘You owe me a debt’

  1. It also won the Ondaatje award which is given for the book of fiction, nonfiction or poetry that best evokes the “spirit of a place”. We read the book in one of my reading groups and felt particularly pleased by this because we all felt we could have found our way round early New York with no difficulty whatsoever.

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