Book Review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford


GoldenHill2About the Book

Publisher’s description: New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a counting house door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Format: ebook Publisher: Scribner Pages: 336
Publication: 27th June 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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Find Golden Hill on Goodreads

My Review

Golden Hill is one of the novels shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can find a complete list of the shortlisted novels here.

The author convincingly captures the style of an 18th century novel with its long sentences, epistolary sections and random capitalization. There are elements of the picaresque – think Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews or perhaps, given some of the more salacious episodes, Tom Jones. There are also some colourful characters, such as the awful creature Smith is forced to share a room with at one point and about whom he writes:

‘He has a Nose swollen to the Likeness of a Piece of Crimson Fruit, ornament’d by a many black Pores as there are Seeds upon a Strawberry; and a Skin of sunburn’d Leather otherwise, much pock’d and moul’d; and verminous Hair as long as his Shoulders, depending from a bald Pate; and a Pair of Eyes so crusted and blood-shot They would deserve to be made an Epithet by Homer, yet bright, and lively, and designing.’

There are also some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of 18th century New York:

‘Day upon day, the cold winds off the river stirred slow grey tributaries of fog between the houses, through which the crush of traffic loomed, and darkened as it loomed, as if becoming more solid with each approaching step. The fog contained and muffled the cries of draymen, squeak of wheel rims, hammering from aloft, et cetera, as a jewel-box with a cushioned lid presses all within into the smothering clasp of velvet.’

The mystery of the true purpose of Richard Smith’s mission provides the narrative arc for the book, into which the author drip feeds the occasional nugget of information about his background.  There is some amusing verbal sparring between Smith and Tabitha Lovell, who is definitely not a typical heroine of 18th century literature.  Spiky, moody and contrary, there are hints of deeper psychological problems.

Viewed with suspicion by some, who fear he is a fraud or spy, and as a possible source of political advantage by others, Smith has one escapade after another.  Luckily, an impressive arsenal of talents emerges, including acting, dancing and card playing.

I did feel slightly disappointed by the ending. I guess I was hoping to be more surprised by the real purpose of Smith’s mission. This wasn’t helped by a significant piece of information having been revealed fairly early on in the novel. But this is a minor quibble.  Golden Hill is a highly enjoyable romp with a great cast of characters, some wonderful set pieces, lots of sly humour and a convincing period setting.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Scribner, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Playful, rich, atmospheric

Try something similar…History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding

FrancisSpuffordAbout the Author

Spufford began as a writer of non-fiction, though always with a strong element of story-telling. Among his early books are I May Be Some Time, The Child That Books Built, and Backroom Boys. He has also edited two volumes of polar literature. But beginning in 2010 with Red Plenty, which explored the Soviet Union around the time of Sputnik using a mixture of fiction and history, he has been drawing steadily closer and closer to writing novels, and after a slight detour into religious controversy with Unapologetic, arrived definitely at fiction in 2016 with Golden Hill. He has been longlisted or shortlisted for prizes for writing about history, science, politics, theology and ‘the spirit of place’. Spufford studied English at Cambridge University. He was a Royal Literary Fund fellow at Anglia Ruskin University from 2005 to 2007, and since 2008 has taught at Goldsmiths College in London on the MA in Creative and Life Writing there.

Connect with Francis

Website ǀ Goodreads



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