I have a love-hate relationship with literary awards. I love them because they provide me with countless tales to add to my ‘must-read’ list. I hate them because, oddly, they can make me feel strangely inadequate intellectually when I simply do not like or ‘get’ the overall winner. Is it me or is it the literati, the doyens and doyennes of all things literary and wonderful that are best to judge what makes a novel brilliant? I battle with this notion constantly which leads to me to a heart-breaking confession. I have read The Catcher in the Rye three times. It is supposed to be one the great American novels that defined a generation of readers and writers. I did not enjoy it. Three times. All I can say to you J.D. Salinger is that I tried.
Thankfully 2011’s Man Booker prize winner left me with no such feelings of inadequacy. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending was an absolute delight to read; a real pleasure. It’s fairly short but doesn’t suffer from that. The character development of protagonist and narrator Tony Webster unfolds beautifully. His personal journey of self-discovery and reflection is not ground-breaking but Barnes beautifully weaves Webster’s journey through moments of his personal history with his current dilemmas.
There are no big tricks in Barnes’ prose. It is a simple tale about a man’s reflections on his fairly unexceptional life. But the journey is wonderful and the few surprises we are given are welcome and thrilling.
Donna Tartt’s seminal The Goldfinch could be described as a coming of age novel with a young orphan boy as protagonist. But The Goldfinch’s Theo Decker is no Oliver Twist. He is flawed and far from infallible which makes his story all the more heart-wrenching and believable. I have never been a teenage boy. But unlike J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield who I never related to, Decker is entirely relatable. His losses are excruciating as Tartt merges anger, sorrow and confusion into a successful symbiosis of emotions.
There is an overriding melancholy that blankets the novel, but not in a suffocating way. It sits comfortably above the plot; near enough to be felt but far enough away that moments of joy and laughter can be felt. This melancholy is best understood through two important characters – one primarily absent and one whose presence is limited. Theo’s mother Audrey exists in a limited capacity at the beginning part of the novel, but she is as much an influence on her son in death as in life (and indeed the novel as a whole). Her bewitching presence reminds the reader of the brevity of life; that good people are involved in toxic and abusive relationships and work in vapid and uninspiring jobs. Good people can live pretty awful lives frankly. Lives that they live for others but not often for themselves. But Audrey remind us that pleasure can be found in the beauty of creativity. Her visits to the Met, the Frick and MOMA in NY are a celebration of her passion for art. Her unfinished art history studies at NYU remind us of the unfulfilled dreams of many before life gets in the way. I’ve read a couple reviews about The Goldfinch. It’s hard not to. But none have recognised the importance of Audrey and her influence over Theo’s very being. It seems the tragedy of her absence by death in the novel is treated by absence outside of it.
The second character that Tartt achingly develops is that of Mrs Barbour. Mrs Barbour with all her affectations of upper East Side Stepford wife is so incredibly layered, her depth cannot be overestimated. Mrs Barbour begins and ends the novel as a character that is seemingly always out of reach of the grasp of Theo. Emotionally and physically Mrs Barbour is always a step away. As her physical absence gives way to emotional absence, her influence over Theo’s world is always there. Mrs Harbour is a difficult character to like. When juxtaposed against Audrey her passion for the arts is seemingly the monetary value of art rather than any appreciation of it. She can be selfish, difficult and more concerned with the opinions of others than of her own family. And yet Mrs Barbour is fundamentally vulnerable. When the glossy fragile world she has built around her dissipates, what remains is a shell of a being.
The Goldfinch is a hefty read. At over 700 pages, it requires commitment. But it’s commitment that I believe brings great rewards once the final page has been read.