Golden Hill

Golden Hill cover

Author: Francis Spufford

Finished on: 6 April 2020

Where did I get this book: A kindle read

Can a man become whatever he wants if he has enough money? Or, at least, the promise of enough money?

Mr Smith – an anonymous name for an anonymous man – arrives in New York in 1746 when it is nothing but a small town on an island called Manhattan. He carries a bank order for a thousand pounds and for the time it takes to verify, or otherwise, the order, he lives a strange kind of a life – welcomed into the cream of society as a rich man, but a figure of suspicion in case it’s all a swindle.

The strongest element of the book is the fascinating insight into the very early days of New York – what it was before it really became New York. It’s a real treat. The story also has something of the swashbuckling adventure about it, which is always hard to resist.

There’s a lot that Spufford keeps from the reader until very close to the end in Golden Hill. There are indications of what one of the main themes must be, but quite how it relates to our central story is not revealed until it’s almost over. Not only that, but the explanation of how the story – within the book’s narrative – came to be recorded comes as a big old surprise too.

At its heart, this is a book about inequality and prejudice of various forms – and I almost wish we’d been told the whole story with a fuller understanding of quite what some of the characters are up against. The plot with a big reveal is in great demand, of course, but if keeping secrets until the end means a writer isn’t able to richly describe some of the most crucial experiences in the book for fear of ‘giving it away,’ I wonder what we lose.

Either way, though, it’s an entertaining read with a beautifully realised sense of time and place. At a time when we’re all stuck at home unable to travel, you could do a lot worse than let Spufford take you on a voyage across the Atlantic, up the Hudson and onto the mean streets of pre-revolutionary America.

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