“I’ve no history here, no character: and what I am is all in what I will be,” Richard Smith tells Mr Lovell, on his arrival in New York City (or New-York, as it was then). Then is November 1746; Smith is newly landed across the ocean, having come from London by ship with a cheque for 1,000 pounds sterling. Mr Lovell is Smith’s would-be creditor – a trader in sugar and slaves whose premises are to be found on Golden Hill. But 1,000 is no small amount of money in 1746, and Lovell is unable to provide the requested sum without proof of Smith’s intentions and honesty. So begins Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s first novel after five works of nonfiction (though you would be forgiven for thinking it his third or fourth, accomplished as it is).
Who he really is and what his intentions are Smith seems intent on withholding from all parties, and it is no mean feat for the novelist to sustain this secrecy without so much as a whiff of frustration on the reader’s part. Yet Spufford manages to hold it at bay, offering instead plenty of intrigue by way of Smith’s more immediate concerns: he waits for his money to be paid to him on Quarter Day, making friends when none will trust him, making enemies more easily, getting into scrapes and gaol, and strutting on the stage.
Spufford has, in his hero, a charming, intelligent and curious young man. But he is hapless, too, and each chapter is like an episode of the latest Netflix hit: his life is a rollercoaster, with every triumph over adversity paving the way for some other great challenge to present itself just as all seemed right. His foray into love is no exception: falling early on for one of Mr Lovell’s daughters – the sharp-tongued, quick-witted, bored-out-of-her-mind Tabitha – he finds a woman as unknowable as he is himself.
Through Smith’s eyes we see New-York long before it was a city of the world. We find it an outpost of misfits hell-bent on their own personal liberty (although they’re unconcerned with that of their slaves). With a population one tenth the size of London, it is pitifully small in comparison to the British capital, but nonetheless exciting – magical, even – and devoid of the stench of its streets. Spufford’s research is impeccable, and leads one to suspect he may be a time traveler. Yet his weaving of the facts into the fiction is even more impressive; as Smith sits in Merchant’s coffeehouse, drinks on the Common around a 5 November bonfire, and flees a pursuing mob through the narrow streets with his newfound friend Septimus Oakeshott, we are there riding on his coattails as they fly out in the wind:
“Left down the cracked paving of wall street, masthead lanterns swaying ahead; Septimus tripping, slipping, his blade grating out a shower of sparks from the rough slabs; recovering himself, gesturing right; them both flinging themselves into an alley that threaded away between the dark bulk of house-fronts. Septimus pressed his finger to his lips. They flattened themselves against the wall and listened. Smith’s blood popped and bounded in his ears. The riverine roar of the pursuit surged, as the city’s stone brinks channelled it round some bend, back behind.”
So much of the brilliance of this story is in the telling of it, and some of its best passages are those in which Spufford apes the style of the period. Just as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela pours her soul onto the page while Mr B tries to enter her room, sacrificing plausibility for exposition, we have Smith writing a long letter to his reverend father apprising him of the kind of events one would never describe to even the most lenient of parents, let alone an 18th-century clergyman. Then there is the use of capitalized Nouns and excessive Commas, which should not be mistaken for poor Grammar on the author’s part. It’s a reminder, too, that 18th-century novelists were doing the sort of metafictional japes more commonly attributed to late 20th-century writers.
Golden Hill is a novel of artistry and artifice, and involves games of cards, conjuring tricks, hidden identities, secret motives, and a play within the novel where characters lose themselves to their stage counterparts. But the greatest artist of all is the teller of the tale: he has given us a playful story belied by an unforeseen seriousness, laid bare only at the novel’s close. These revelations, not to be uncovered on a whim in a review, lend the novel an unexpected resonance beyond its characters’ smaller tragedies, and serve as a reminder of how much humanity mankind has found within itself in the last three centuries – as well as how easily we might slip back.
This is a book that manages to be many things at once: it brims with golden humor, is unbearably moving, attuned to the fickleness of the world, and reveling in possibility. Despite being overlooked for the Man Booker Prize last year, Golden Hill was awarded the Costa First Novel Prize early in January 2017. The overall Costa Prize (awarded to one of the five category winners) is announced at the end of the month. If I had Smith’s 1,000 pounds, I’d put it on for a win.
Faber and Faber
352 pp.| £8.99