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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Contemporary Masterpiece

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

The story of a boy who is caught up in a terrorist attack in an art gallery and whose confused actions on recovering consciousness have a devastating effect on the rest of his life, The Goldfinch is a masterpiece of contemporary literature. With unflinching attention to detail Donna Tartt depicts the traumatised protagonist descending through layers of self-destruction while all the time fixated upon a vision of transcendent beauty he first glimpsed during those bewildering moments in the art gallery, moments that irrevocably changed the course of his life.

There are so many things that make this a novel of the very first rank: the precision of the visual observation, the psychological acuity, the pitch-perfect comedy that counterbalances the darkness at the novel's heart. Most of all, however, it is the extraordinary ambition of the narrative, its unashamed examination of the nature of morality and the importance of beauty for the human soul.

'Caring too much for objects can destroy you', Theo, the protagonist, observes. 'Only - if you care for a thing enough it takes on a life of its own, doesn't it ? And isn't the whole point of things - beautiful things - that they connect you to some larger beauty?'

This is precisely Theo's tragedy. It is his longing for that larger beauty that utterly corrupts him. In every story, from Disney to Dostoevsky, he points out, we are advised to be ourselves, to trust our own heart. But 'what if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one wilfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?... If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or...is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?'