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 on 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 . . .
Set in pre-revolutionary New York City, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is the story of the young, charming and mysterious Mr Smith. Who arrives at a counting house with a money order for one thousand pounds and a strange determination to keep those around him suspicious of his intent. All around him New York merchants face a decision over whether to trust, arrest or kill him.
Spufford’s remarkable first novel, has at its heart a twisting plot and a puzzle waiting to be solved. The language is fitting to the period he sets his novel in and takes some getting used to. It took me a while to adjust to the speed the book reads at, but its well worth the effort.
The drama is lightened by a deft touch of humour and the tale flows along beautifully. He invokes a New York far from the busy metropolis we are used to and you can feel the atmosphere of the early colonial city, it’s bath houses, dark claustrophobic streets and pre-revolutionary politics. You can almost feel the cold of a New York winter as it seeps into Mr Smith’s bones.
It’s a novel of great skill, with a range of characters that at times make you laugh, cry and whom you desperately want to find happiness. Not all the wishes are met or granted. Your heart my even break a little, but ultimately, I was left feeling satisfied and content that I’d been delivered a rich and fulfilling read.
You can see the roots of the American idea that on its shores a young man could reinvent himself, find success and leave the past behind. Not everyone succeeds in navigating the treacherous waters of New York colonial society and we have to deal the way the settlers exploited their slaves to achieve success.
Ultimately through the richness of the language used, the mystery at its very heart, the reader is given a thoroughly entertaining read. The hero is not perfect, but you will find yourself rooting for him. It’s a book of extraordinary depth. It can be read as a mystery to be solved or a commentary on the pre-revolutionary American society.
Francis Spufford was born in 1964. He is the author of five highly-praised books of non-fiction, most frequently described by reviewers as either ‘bizarre’ or ‘brilliant’, and usually as both. Unapologetic, has been translated into three languages; the one before, Red Plenty, into nine. He has been longlisted or shortlisted for prizes in science writing, historical writing, political writing, theological writing, and writing ‘evoking the spirit of place’. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and lives near Cambridge. His latest book is his first novel, Golden Hill.
Published by Faber and Faber.