There are few experiences as moving as standing in front of an object which is not only incredibly beautiful in its own right, but which was created, and has been admired, loved and handled over the centuries, by people we’ve only read about in history books.
A few days ago I finished reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I’m still feeling completely blown away by it. The book, which deservedly won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, tells the story of Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a bomb attack on a museum in New York, leaving him at the age of 13 completely bereft of parental love or guidance. In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo takes with him a small painting, also called The Goldfinch, produced in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius.
In the days following the attack, Theo is cared for by the parents of a school friend until his alcoholic, drug-addicted father turns up with a recently acquired girl-friend and carts him off to a new life in Las Vegas. There, wholly neglected by his remaining parent and forced to fend for himself, Theo befriends Boris, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. Time passes and Theo is drawn into a world of drugs, fraud, gangsters and crime, but throughout he clings to the painting as the one object that connects him to his mother and his ‘real’ life with her.
Tartt’s genius has been to avoid any sort of sentimentality or mawkishness in depicting Theo and the psychological trauma he undergoes. Bereavement leaves him with a vast unfillable void at the centre of his life but it doesn’t change his essential character. It is very much implied that the chasm of destructive behaviour he plunges into was already inherent in his character before his mother died; what has changed is that there is no longer the loving guidance she would have provided to keep him on a better path.
Untethered from any sort of moral compass, Theo goes seriously off the rails. And yet throughout it all, the painting somehow continues to represent the possibility of something purer and truer. The Goldfinch isn’t a mere fictional device; the painting really exists. Tartt provides details of its story; its creator was himself killed in an explosion at a munitions factory in Delft along with most of his work and yet this small luminous treasure somehow miraculously survived.
At the heart of the book is an incredible sense of the potency of art and how certain objects fashioned by human hands and imagination become invested with a sort of extraordinary totemic magic as they pass through the centuries to reach our own time. When everything around us seems polluted and lost, art provides a life-line that enables us to reach beyond our own grubby reality to what is eternal and sublime.