“Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford (Review)

{ my rating: ★★★★ }

Golden Hill is as historical as historical novels can get. Full of claustrophobic streets, docks overflowing with stomping feet, a dozen different kinds of crinkled money, and old fashioned businessmen and bankers with powdered wigs, it is the definitive frenzied panorama of New York, and a new world, in the making.  

The journey begins in the mid 1700s as an Englishman steps off a ship with a check of £1000 in his pocket to cash. To a fledgling state like New York, that kind of figure is no usual occurrence by any stretch, and so Robert Smith, the mysterious Englishman in question, gets accustomed to being treated like royalty or foe depending on who he’s interacting with. 

Golden Hill boasts a large cast of diverse class characters, but the most crucial to the unfolding mystery of what Mr. Smith is using his fortune for are the man himself, Tabitha Lovell (a local banker’s daughter), and New York. Tabitha’s relationship with Mr. Smith is the comedic aspect of the novel since she is a woman that’s wont to muttering the first insult that pops into her head, spinning Smith into social discomfort when she’s being plain wicked or a mischievous mood of his own when she goes a little easier. While Tabitha is not a spinster per the classic historical trope, she can come across as one because of the things she does and says just to push people’s buttons, which in effect alienated her from most successful New Yorkers her father invites to dinner and such. Nonetheless, Smith has special chemistry with her that goes deeper than the two sharing the feeling of being outsiders, and I dare say they are well matched because Mr. Smith has a natural penchant for trouble himself. 

If Mr. Smith has a penchant for trouble, the city of New York is merciless in hers. After exchanging the pocket money he had while waiting on his check to go through Mr. Lovell, a chunk of it gets stolen in broad daylight while he takes a stroll around the narrow veins of the city. How’s that for a taste of the new world? The bubbly spirit of New York is the most fun I have had with a book in a while, whether the joys be from the Guy Hawkes holiday the citizens respect with such grim scenes around bonfires whilst wearing bedsheets and other goofy costume pieces or because of the hilarious, implied verbal showdowns between the rich at a poker table. 

The single major fault I had with the novel though was that the mystery of Mr. Smith’s money took a long time to get an answer to. Mr. Smith as a character was engaging and charismatic and loveable, all traits that a great leading character should have, but it grew tiring to remember so many characters and what they did after passing the halfway mark. At a point Tabitha and Septimus and the other Lovells establish their importance to the story which makes them and their backstory easy to remember when they appear, but a majority of the names blend into the chaos of hyperactive Old New York. 

Overall, Golden Hill was a wonderful genre change from my pile of psychological suspense and gothic. Being that this was Mr. Spufford’s debut into fiction following his well received nonfiction books, it goes to show that dedication and research and years of rewrites can recapture history that’s already passed, and instill it into an engaging artistic product such as Golden Hill. I’ve read my share of historical novels, but none of them hold a candle to the atmosphere and style and joy of Spufford’s confident Old New York. 

My thanks goes to the folks at Netgalley and Scribner for making it possible for me to read this ahead of the release date. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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