Ex Libris Kirkland

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Subtitle A Novel of Old New York
First Written 2017
Genre Fiction
Origin UK
Publisher Scribner
ISBN-10 1501163876
ISBN-13 978-1501163876
My Copy library copy
First Read August 11, 2017

Golden Hill



I LOVED this. I was primed to, I guess, by already being a fan of Spufford's other non-fiction work (although I didn't dig his part-history-part-novel Red Plenty). But really, this is very, very good.

Golden Hill is the story of a stranger arriving on New York's shores, and inventing a new provisional life. What his mission is exactly is up in the air, and who he really is is also a mystery. It's got to be incredibly difficult to write a point-of-view character who won't reveal their actual goals or background - but the slow reveal of this is well done, and makes for a page-turner. It's a legitimately FUN read.

Oh, and the New York that our stranger has arrived in is in the 1700s, before the Revolutionary War. Half the people he meets still speak Dutch, and "New York" is just a swampy village of 7000 people, a few streets that today are part of lower Manhattan. It was fun to be partially familiar with the landscape, and fun to imagine it 300 years ago. There's that same pleasure of a well-crafted historical novel that you see in Mantel's Wolf Hall books - where you suddenly see the origin of some modern phrase as a strange new invention.

But setting and lead character aside, Spufford has more to offer. First, he's just an incredible writer - the pacing and flow of this novel are great, and the actual phrasing is just delightful. Second, he's got a grip on a real person's interior life that many novelists don't. If you've read Unapologetic, which I highly recommend, you're going to hear echoes here of the emotional turbulence of seeing your own sinful nature for what it is.

Noted on August 12, 2017

“Me? Never in life!’ said Smith, giving them his familiar beam of amiability: only now with a ragged carelessness, a desultory approximation, like a man who briefly raises a mask on a stick to his face but cannot be bothered to line up the eye holes.

Quoted on August 12, 2017

It has often been observed, how our desires take strength or force from having a minute dash of repulsion curdled into 'em, the fruit no doubt of our fallen state. Now desire ceded to repulsion altogether. The soft expansive wish to reach for her, with mouth, with tongue, with hands--the bare-skinned greedy gentle unprotected urge to hold, stroke, suck, coddle, transfix--recoiled in alarm, as if he had been wishing to kiss (indeed) a creeping wasp in winter, or a crab, or a furr'd and feeler'd moth. He had believed till that instant that he hated her, but to hate a strong enemy, full of resource and will, is to continue to admire, after a fashion, especially if what you hate you also find beautiful. Now, rather than a girl who made mischief from an excess of spirit, a wicked lively freedom, it seemed he saw a being miserably compelled, venomous and yet helpless; self-stung, self-poisoned, unequal to the catastrophes she caused.

Quoted on August 12, 2017

[On Americans, drinking] Yet here it was regular, cleanly-dressed citizens--he would have said sober citizens -- who were casting off their daylight selves upon the sulphurous apron of the fire, and drinking, not to be convivial, not to take off the cold edge of the night, but to dissolve as much of themselves as spirits would eat away.

Quoted on August 12, 2017


Ex Libris Kirkland is a super-self-absorbed reading journal made by Matt Kirkland. Copyright © 2001 - .
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