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The Goldfinch

Andrew Tate

Donna Tartt

Little, Brown, 784pp

'What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?' This brace of awkward theological questions is posed in the last chapter of Donna Tartt's outstanding, hard-to-categorize, third novel. Theo Decker - the damaged, romantic, art-addicted narrator of The Goldfinch - has more reason than most to doubt the benign nature of providence. Theo's elegiac fairy-tale of New York begins, aged 13, with an unplanned visit to a museum, a terrorist attack and the death of his ethereal, aesthetically-gifted mother. The blast that destroys a relatively secure, middle-class existence - private school, skating at Rockefeller Plaza, relief at the absence of his unstable, gambling father - brings this sensitive adolescent into contact with a vast troupe of Dickensian eccentrics. Theo's grief is also the start of a lifelong obsession with a single work of art: the titular bird is derived from the name of a painting by Carel Fabritius - a 17th-century artist famed as the most distinctive pupils of Rembrandt - loved by Theo's mother and which he has seen for the first time minutes before the bomb changes everything. This minute, priceless work of art embodies what Walter Benjamin sceptically names 'aura': a powerful, seductive, near magical presence that can be exploited by markets but which seems to transcend everyday definition. In the painful years that follow, even the thought of the painting gives the lonely teenager a sense of 'an invisible, bedrock rightness'. It also, more darkly, snags Theo's 'idolater's heart' and encourages a life of destructive secrecy. The painting is both an analogue for all that the narrator has lost (his mother, their shared life) and, possibly, a promise of everything that might yet be saved. It also may become a dangerous fetish, an idol rather than an icon.

The Goldfinch fuses hard, realist detail - it features, for example, vivid echoes of a panicked world after 9/11 and displays Tartt's gift for depicting the pain of urban anomie - with the near-mystical qualities of a fable for the era of hyper-reality. This is a book replete with references to other stories, some of them mischievously recent: Theo, the miraculous survivor and (almost) orphan, retains the nickname 'Potter' well into his twenties. The narrative, as it moves between New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, has an atmosphere of staged reality - what Theo calls 'a dream strangeness' - and the powerful illusoriness of contemporary life pervades his story. Theo's narration is replete with references to other art forms: the stage, fiction and cinema vie with oil paintings and antique furniture. It is also in an intriguing recent tradition of 'ekphrastic fiction' - novels which respond to the visual arts - and might be read alongside Tracey Chevalier's The Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999) and Michael Frayn's Headlong (1999). Like those novels - though in much more compelling form - Tartt asks crucial questions about aesthetic experience: what is the value of beauty? Does art assuage suffering or perpetuate pain? 'About suffering they were never wrong,' claimed WH Auden of the Old Masters. His poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts', is inspired by Pieter Brueghel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting that ironizes the anguish of human failure (all we see of the boy who famously flew too close to the sun is a tiny pair of legs disappearing into the sea, as a ship, indifferent sails 'calmly on'). The Goldfinch is, in part, an extended meditation on a similar idea of human fragility and our inability to live up to the ideals we cherish.

Few 21st US writers take the idea of sin seriously enough to write about it with such a dynamic eye for comedy as well as the tragic. The novel signals its affinities with Russian fiction, and especially the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky at his most bracingly theological, in a number of ways. Tartt's overriding concern with guilt and freedom - crucial to her first novel, The Secret History (1992) - echoes Crime and Punishment. Boris, the Ukrainian-Polish émigré - confidante, thief, polyglot, buffoon and grubby sage - is a contemporary sinner/saint and, indeed, one chapter of the novel is named 'The Idiot'. Boris, in full flow, thinking about the original 'idiot', Prince Myshkin, asks a number of key questions: 'Where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions?' Theo - a name that signifies the gratuity of God's grace - who recognizes that he has become a man 'scorched with despair, self-hatred, shame' is periodically challenged to reassess his temptation to embrace nothingness by his Artful Dodger like friend.

In an essay, 'The Spirit and Writing in a Secular World' (2000) - a rare excursion into non-fiction that explores the creative friction between her Catholic faith and literary vocation - Tartt observes that a good book 'enables non-believers to participate in a world-view that religious people take for granted: life as a vast polyphonous web of interconnections, predestined meetings, fortuitous choices and accidents, all governed by a unifying if unforeseen plan'. Theo, with the help of Boris and others, starts to ask questions about the nature of God without arriving at very inspiring answers. He is faced with a choice, as are we all, of reading life as 'relentless irony' or 'divine providence'. Yet there are patterns in The Goldfinch that suggest this polarizing set of options is a false opposition. The 'larger beauty' for which Theo yearns may not be containable in a painting or an idea or the human frame itself. This is not quite the same thing as saying that such grace is not worthy of the pursuit, by artist or spectator.