golden-hillAs I was reading the last pages of Golden Hill it was announced as this year’s winner of the Costa First Novel Award, a much deserving winner in my opinion. I had come across this book through word of mouth (or word of Twitter I should say). People were raving about how good it is and I do love my historical fiction…

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy evening, a charming and handsome young stranger fresh off the boat from England pitches up to a counting-house in Golden Hill Street, with a suspicious yet compelling proposition – he has an order for a thousand pounds in his pocket that he wishes to cash. But can he be trusted? This is New York in its infancy, a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love, and find a world of trouble…

The setting of New York, before independence, a tiny town in comparison from the sprawl of London which protagonist Richard Smith is used to, is intriguing. Spufford clearly knows his history but never bores with it. His knowledge of what life would have been like in this god fearing community, a mix of Dutch (old) and British (newer) settlers, is authentic and believable.

The genius of the plot hangs on the mystery that surrounds Richard Smith. We follow him from the moment that he lands in New York, but it isn’t until the very end that the full reason for his voyage is revealed. I had been concerned that the mystery would not live up to expectations – when you keep a reader in the dark for over three hundred pages it had better be pretty good! – but it totally did. And at no point did I guess the truth of it. Spufford does a good job of getting the reader to trust Smith, even when he is clearly being economical with the truth. We are privy to enough of Smith’s thoughts and feelings to be convinced that he is a good man deep down (albeit one who consistently makes poor and reckless decisions).

There is also the thin web of a potential love story between Smith and Tabitha, daughter of the dismayed merchant who finds himself in receipt of Smith’s incredible bill. As with the rest of this novel, it is no usual love story though. This pair clash, consistently at odds with one another, and the reader is never certain as to whether all will end well. What I love most is that Spufford does not take the easy path of tokenism. Yes, as seems to be a trend in recent historical novels there is a gay character who must stay hidden away for fear of execution. Yes, there are several slaves to represent the black community. It irritates me when such characters are thrown in without reason, as if the author has read a few Guardian articles on diversity and is worried about being criticised for presenting a whitewashed/hetero story. Spufford’s characters are not there to tick boxes. They exist with purpose, as fully rounded people, and the plot depends on them.

If I was going to be hyper critical, I would only say that at times Smith seems overly foolish but he is meant to be. A young man, thousands of miles from home, should act with more caution, but then we’d have no story and some people are stupid enough to walk down the street with a wad of money in hand asking to be robbed…Basically, my verdict on Golden Hill is: go and read this book as soon as possible.



2 Comments on “Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

  1. I really liked this too. I thought the creation of New York was brilliant (remember the columns of slaves shuffling through the streets?) and it was fascinating to hear such familiar names as Broadway, Manhattan and see what they once were. The idea of New York as a small town being surrounded by deep threatening forests has stayed with me.


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