‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

In this stunning novel, Tartt envisions a modern Dickensian cast of characters, substituting London for present day New York. Theo Decker, our century’s orphan, sets forth on a journey led largely on his possession of a priceless painting. Circumstances that lead to his getting this artwork are the basis for the spiraling turn his life takes in the next ten years. His mother is killed in a bomb blast (not a spoiler) at a New York museum, and in that chaos ,Theo meets the dying man, and the painting, that change him forever.

What I found most fascinating about this book is how Tartt shows the life of an American teen left with nothing familiar remaining in his life. Theo’s journey is raw and filled with drugs, thugs and a brief uniting with an extremely unstable father who exits his life yet again. Theo experiences life with the extremely wealthy in New York, to what is effectively urban squatting in a Las Vegas suburb. Through him, we see the dark sides of both lifestyles – a very neat nod to Dickens, it seems. Tartt doesn’t just tip her hat to Dickens though. The great Russian classics come to us through Theo’s friend, and possibly his worst influence, Boris. Love him or hate him – and there is plenty of room for both – Boris is a larger than life character. The modern Artful Dodger, Boris weaves in and out of Theo’s life, from high-school to involvement in the art underworld.  And we aren’t without the presence of an old curiosity shop and the proprietor Hobie who is a haven of stability throughout for all.

As a fan of the ‘big saga’ genre, I fell into this story right from the start. There are many complex characters that propel a plot that is familiar at times, and yet can suddenly become wild and fantastical. Tartt can write some of the tightest prose I’ve read and then wax philosophic for pages. She took thirteen years to write this, all the while with a print of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at her desk, so I can forgive any digressions. The painting gives a hint to the story; the little bird held to its perch by a small chain reminds the reader of whatever it may be in life that holds us forever.

Rating: 5 stars

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‘The Iliad’ by Homer *****

I absolutely adore reading and learning about the Ancients, particularly the Greeks, but I’ve always put off reading The Odyssey and The Iliad. I think the sole reason for this relatively conscious decision was the way in which I thought both would be rather challenging and time-consuming reads. When I began The Iliad whilst in Menorca, however, I found that I was utterly mistaken. I was swept into the story immediately, and found it difficult to put down. (It must have looked as though I was practically glued to my Kindle for the duration, I’m sure).

Homer’s prose throughout is stunning, and his imagery is so incredibly powerful. I found the epic poem structure a glorious way in which to tell such a story. The poetic form gave every battle scene such rhythm and such marvellous power. The tale which Homer portrays is fierce and brutal, but it is also overwhelmingly gorgeous. It is sensuous throughout, and rather divinely written. The edition which I read was translated by Alexander Pope, and whilst I will never be able to compare it to the original text, I believe that he has rendered his translation with as much love and justice as he possibly could have.

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I really feel as though I’ve achieved something in reading The Iliad. It’s one of the books I’ve wanted to read since I was about thirteen and saw my Grandfather’s beautiful hardback edition, but one which I’ve been too chicken to begin until now. Next project: The Odyssey.