Summary and book reviews of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill

A Novel of Old New York

by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jun 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts

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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the 2017 Costa First Novel Award.

The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution, in "a first-class period entertainment" (The Guardian).

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat pitches up at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won't explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Set thirty years before the American Revolution, Golden Hill captures an ancient iconography of New York not only in his depictions of the physical city and its diverse citizens, currencies, and costumes, but also in the clever and pungent language of his prose. Golden Hill is an update of eighteenth-century picaresque novels by the likes of Henry Fielding and entertains us with its savage wit, mystery, charismatic protagonist, and romantic storyline as it propels us toward a powerful revelation at the novel's end. "Intoxicating" (The Financial Times) and "as good a historical novel as you could read" (The Times, London), Golden Hill shows us a city provokingly different from its later self; but subtly shadowed by the great icon to come, and already a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself anew, fall in love - and find a world of trouble.

All Hallows
November 1st 20 Geo. II 1746
I

The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour—and having passed the Narrows about three o'clock—and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York—until it seemed to Mr. Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno—and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city's veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water—and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap:—all this being true, the master of ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. "What a difference a frame makes!" thinks Mr. Smith while first looking in on the room occupied by Tabitha, Flora, and Zephyr, less than an hour after arriving in New York (p. 10). What difference does the frame of Golden Hill, revealed in Tabitha's postscript on pages 295-299, make in your understanding of the novel? What difference does it make in your enjoyment of the novel?
  2. Saracen conjurer, agent of the French, actor, rogue, mountebank: Mr. Smith is called each of these things at some point during his time in New York. Which label is most fitting and why?
  3. Mr. Lovell offers a definition of "commerce" in the following: "Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand ...
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    Costa Book Awards
    2017

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The language is downright musical at times, as when describing the local theater — "very dusty and dark and cumbered by lumber it was." The tone and themes of Dickens permeate the book (most notably in the critique of slavery and call for social reform), and there is a dash of Jane Austen as well. Serious devotees of historical fiction will appreciate Spufford's unrestrained verbosity and knowing winks toward his influences. Golden Hill's nimble story and whip smart humor is a handsome reward for the loquacious digressions.   (Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

His ironic, sometimes bawdy sense of humor and coy storytelling may frustrate those who do not "cotton" to the "cant," but patient readers are rewarded with a feast of language, character, local color, and historical detail.

Booklist

Starred Review. Readers bounce through chases, courtrooms, brawls, debtors' prison, and a momentous steam-room sex scene, and it's all great fun. But most pleasurable is the prose itself, which is clever, silly, and perceptive, somehow managing to seem perfectly historically calibrated while poking fun at itself for such efforts. A virtuoso literary performance.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Nonfiction author Spufford (Unapologetic) makes his fiction debut with this successful homage to the great master of the picaresque novel, Henry Fielding. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award, it's sure to have a wide readership.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.

Financial Times (UK)

The intoxicating effect of Golden Hill is much more than an experiment in form. [Spufford] has created a complete world, employing his archivist skills to the great advantage of his novel ... This is a book born of patience, of knowledge accrued and distilled over decades, a style honed by practice. There are single scenes here more illuminating, more lovingly wrought, than entire books.

The Times (UK)

Like a newly discovered novel by Henry Fielding with extra material by Martin Scorsese. Why it works so well is largely down to Spufford's superb re-creation of New York ... His writing crackles with energy and glee, and when Smith's secret is finally revealed it is hugely satisfying on every level. For its payoff alone Golden Hill deserves a big shiny star.

The Guardian (UK)

Splendidly entertaining and ingenious ... Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly ... a first-class period entertainment.

Daily Mail (UK)

Paying tribute to writers such as Fielding, Francis Spufford's creation exudes a zesty, pin-sharp contemporaneity ... colonial New York takes palpable shape in his dazzlingly visual, pacy and cleverly plotted novel.

Author Blurb Iain Pears
Francis Spufford has long been one of my favourite writers of non-fiction; he is now becoming a favourite writer of fiction as well. Golden Hill is a meticulously crafted and brilliantly written novel that is both an affectionate homage to the 18th century novel and a taut and thoughtful tale.

Author Blurb Jo Baker
I loved this book so much. Golden Hill wears its research with incredible insouciance and grace; a rollicking picaresque, it is threaded through with darkness but has a heart of gold.

Author Blurb Nick Hornby
Francis Spufford has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature.

Author Blurb Mark Haddon
Addictively readable.

Reader Reviews

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Guy Fawkes Night

In one of the most memorable sequences in Golden Hill, the protagonist, Mr. Smith, attends a Guy Fawkes Night celebration that goes terribly awry after an effigy of the Pope is burned. Smith is taken for Catholic and pursued by an angry drunken mob.

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, depiction In Britain, Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of the failure of the 1605 assassination attempt on King James I and much of England's aristocracy. The conspirators, a group of thirteen disgruntled Catholics, planned to blow up Parliament to achieve its desired goals of gaining greater religious freedom under the reign of the Protestant King, as Catholics were persecuted in England at the time. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were placed in the cellar of the House of Lords, but then several ...

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