A Novel of Old New York
By Francis Spufford
Scribner. 302 pp. $26
Reviewed by Karen Heller
New York in 1746, three decades before Hamilton and all that, was a small but industrious town of 7,000, an inkling of the Gotham it would become. "This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do," the exquisitely named and clearly clairvoyant Septimus Oakeshott warns in Francis Spufford's exhilarating first novel, Golden Hill. Residents, he declares, are "wild, suspicious, combustible - and the devil to govern. "
Spufford, a prize-gilded author of five works of nonfiction, has finally delivered a novel, and it's a wonder. It has racked up a mantle of English literary awards and was crowned the British Sunday Times' novel of the year.
Golden Hill is an homage to the action-packed works of 18th-century masters like Sterne, Smollett, and Fielding, but with Spufford's nimble fingers on fast-forward, speeding along characters - such characters! - and plot at a delirious pace.
There are sparring lovers, hidden identities, theater, "spectacular debauchery," a duel (take that, Hamilton!), sedition, prison, insidious small-town politics, a voluptuous thespian named Terpie Tomlinson ("Every time she misremembers a line, she'll give a flash of thigh"), a'nd multiple reversals of fortune (naturally). A feast!
Upon arrival, our handsome hero Robert Smith immediately goes to cash his note with the prosperous trader Lovell, resident of Golden Hill, the highest spot in all of tiny New York (home now to the Financial District) and future site of a 1770 battle that provided tinder for the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, all Lovell can deliver is a small offering until Smith's legitimacy is confirmed.
Ah, but Lovell has two daughters: fair, honorable, and - wouldn't you know it? - dull Flora; and stern, dark-tressed Tabitha, a woman of pronounced intelligence and bite. A fan of Shakespeare's, Tabitha says, "I am not a great one for novels," even while becoming the fetching heroine of this one. Smith and Tabitha spar exquisitely, claiming not to be at all like Benedick and Beatrice but fooling no one.
In 1756, London was Europe's largest city with a population of 700,000, a hundred times that of striving New York. A man of the world, well-traveled, a master at fitting in almost anywhere, Smith is completely at sea on land that is not yet a nation or even an idea of one.
Golden Hill possesses a fluency and immediacy, a feast of the senses, without ever being pedantic. It is a historical novel for people who might not like them. Did I mention that I love this book? I love this book.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.