Golden Hill by Francis Spufford thrusts us firmly on the ground of 18th Century Manhattan where a young Richard Smith has just arrived from England laden with a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds, a considerably large sum of money at the time. While waiting for the bill to be verified with Lovell’s counting house on Golden Hill, Smith causes much speculation and rumor among New Yorkers. He insists on shrouding himself with mystery by refusing to reveal his true identity, or from where he obtained the money, or what he intends to do with it. His identity and intentions are not fully revealed either to the reader or Manhattanites until close to the end of the novel. We share in the mystery and speculation until the very end.
In the 60 days it takes for the bill to be verified and paid, Smith ricochets from one adventure to another. He is robbed, chased on rooftops, escapes a drunken mob out to do him mischief, spends time in a debtor’s prison, struggles with a card game, falls in and out of love, fights a duel, and is exposed while succumbing to the temptations of the flesh with Terpie, a generously endowed local actress married to a military officer.
Francis Spufford’s novel is brilliant, entertaining, sparkling with wit and humor, and an absolute delight. Written in the language of 18th century novels, Golden Hill conjures up the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of New York and its inhabitants through rich immersion in historical detail. The plot is complex with surprising twists and turns. Spufford peppers his novel with scenes that are laugh out loud hilarious. Some notable examples occur during the card game of piquet, the breathless chase across winding streets and rooftops, Smith’s letter to his father, the illustrious union between Smith and Terpie, and Smith’s farcical trial. The authorial intrusions and commentaries, frequently tinged with ironic self-deprecation, were particularly enjoyable, making the narrator’s voice one of the most charming qualities of the novel.
Smith emerges as a lovable, bungling, naive hero who is more acted upon than acting and who blunders from one scrape into another. He swims outside of his element with little understanding of the political machinations at play. He mixes with the social elite of Manhattan, most of whom eye him with guarded suspicion. His relationship with Tabitha, Lovell’s eldest daughter, stings with dueling dialogue and acerbic wit. He is forced into fighting a duel for his indiscretion with the married Terpie. But what should have been a fake duel undertaken as a means to save face and preserve honor turns disastrous when Smith accidentally slips with sword in hand, mortally wounding his friend and only ally.
A wonderful combination of adventure, mystery, humor, historical authenticity, and social commentary flavored with scintillating dialogue, well-developed characters, and a charming hero, all of which are deliciously wrapped in a package of well-written 18th century diction.
A delightful read. Highly recommended.