Book Review: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

When I go somewhere, be it on holiday or otherwise, I like to read novels set in that location. I don’t know why I do this, but I do. I think it brings the novel to life, walking the same streets as the characters.

Having said that, my mum once gave me a thriller by Denise Mina because it was set in Glasgow where I was living at the time. The location was so real and familiar to me that it brought the novel a  bit too much to life: the phrase, “as I walked down Byres Road, the image of his severed head floated in front of my eyes” still strikes fear into my heart. Having it in the flat was giving me nightmares and I ended up posting it back to her, just to get it away from me.

But anyway, Golden Hill. We went to New York in October as a sort of post-Master’s degree blow-out, which is where the novel is set. It’s the story of Mr Smith, who arrives in New York late in 1746. He has nowt in his pockets but a few coins and a bill of exchange for £1,000.

Spufford’s drip-feeding of information to the story is masterful; we know there must be a reason for Smith’s voyage to the New World, but it’s not actually disclosed until the final pages. The sheer amount of detail and contextual knowledge this book contains is astonishing. The story is colourful, a rich tapestry of life in 18th century New York, a city in its infancy. As my impression of the city is of a towering modern metropolis, it added another layer of detail to those memories to learn about the original layout, the original currency and the society. Added to that is Spufford’s vivid use of language; there’s a particularly memorable scene involving Bonfire Night and our hero, and you can almost smell the fire and feel the cold air on your face. I feel like if I re-read this book, I’d pick up on things I missed the first time around. It is that kind of novel.

The language is era-appropriate; I’d just finished a really terrible thriller, again from my mother, and the shift in styles took a bit of adjustment. But once I’d got there, it was like someone was reading to me. A deeply comic novel, it does take a darker turn which both moved and alarmed me; there were tears shed. I think he used era-appropriate punctuation too, unless the colon followed by a dash is still is use? There’s also a Section consisting of a Letter being written, and he uses Capitalization of Nouns, which I found quite hard to navigate.

All in all, this is a splendid, lovingly researched 18th century novel, which is in turn funny, moving, and unsettling.

Would I recommend this book? Yes.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is published by Faber & Faber, priced £8.99.

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