I recently read Donna Tartt’s sprawling epic novel The Goldfinch, an interesting meditation on identity, loss and how we deal with the past. I was captivated by one aspect of it in particular, and I look at it in detail here – the portrayal of the mind. In an increasingly unstable world, and against the backdrop of initiatives to increase awareness of mental health problems in the UK, this is a very important book.
NB: Some spoilers for the novel follow…
First things first, let me introduce you. Readers of the internet, meet Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New York kid with a reasonable upbringing and his whole life ahead of him – a life which is turned upside down by a single tumultuous event, the fallout from which comes to define him.
He is the central figure of Donna Tartt’s epic novel The Goldfinch, an often thrilling and always emotional epic of 860 odd pages. Following the very personal tragedy that befalls him, the novels charts what happens to him in the years that follow. In forensic detail, we gain access to the currents of his mind, his thoughts, his doubts, his fears, and everything else. Every single part of his psyche, and every consequence of every action, is covered with precision and (more importantly) a great deal of humanity. Theo may be an idiot on frequent occasions, but Tartt does a good job of making you feel for him, and such is the detail that I have perhaps never felt that I knew a fictional character as well as I knew Theo Decker by the end of the novel.
From his childhood innocence being ripped up and destroyed, to his kinship with his somewhat distant friend Andy, whose family take him in, we feel everything. He feels disenfranchised and alone when he moves away from New York, the scene of his past tragedy, but is followed by something he took from that day, which will not leave him alone because he can’t quite let go of it. So he leaves, but even then, trouble finds him.
And when he finally returns to New York after a long absence, he gets in deep doing the wrong things, and comes to be defined by the same thing that has haunted him, hung over him even, ever since his teenage years. The supporting players in the story, and in his life, begin to return to him, and it begins to seem as though he has been watching his own life at a distance, as a bit part. Everything seems barely real. This sense of being adrift is powerfully conjured up by the author, and serves as a reminder of how one event can come to define someone and how they look at the world.
Crime, or the shadow of it, never quite escapes Theo, no matter how much he tries to run – it always seems to catch up to him again. Full of pride, recklessness, and a misplaced but thoroughly understandable instability (because it is written well), he does not admit the truth about the defining event of his past to anyone, despite many chances to do so throughout the book.
His poor choices come back to haunt him, though, and the second half of the book is very sombre in tone, with very dark and almost morbid reflections on life taking up a lot of the pages. But, with Theo having come full circle, the conclusion still ends up sounding perversely hopeful. He realises the need to let go, to acknowledge his faults and move on.
And with the emphasis being placed on mental health at the beginning of 2016, with the British government’s pledge to do more, a review of mental healthcare in hospitals, and the BBC’s In The Mind season earlier this year to raise awareness of disorders and how they are perceived, it seems fitting that no less than the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize should have it as arguably its overarching theme. Yes, things such as crime and family may also come into proceedings, but Theo’s mental state is at the heart of all of them. And if literature comes to address issues which need to be discussed but often aren’t, then that has to be a good thing. Of course I don’t mean to generalise matters by just talking about one book, but it can be a start.
Yes, sometimes things may all be in the mind – but that doesn’t mean they have to stay there. The Goldfinch both highlights the frailties and insecurities that are very characteristic of us humans when backed into a corner, and in doing so, tries to blast away the stigma around it and encourage us to be more supportive of people. And as well as this, it champions art and those who try to preserve it (though perhaps in a very unorthodox fashion). In that sense, this is a very important and timely book, and one that should not be forgotten.