I loved this novel by Francis Spufford. I knew of the author because of his non- fiction work, especially ‘The Boy That Books Built’. I was not sure what to expect from his first work of fiction but I was bowled over by the balance of fun and seriousness. The book had a lot of exposure on publication and it has done well on the literary prize front but, best of all, it was a book that made me smile… many times.
A young man from London called Mr Smith arrives in the New York of 1746 with a letter or a ‘bill of exchange’ entitling him to a large sum of money. There are 60 days for the Manhattan bank to honour the bill, written by a banking house in London. The owners of the bank are suspicious and demand assurances before they will pay out, especially as the young man in front of them does not fit their idea of what a rich young nobleman should look like.
The story follows the ups and downs of Mr Smith as he waits for the 60 days to pass and for the assurances the bank seeks to arrive from London. In the manner of an 18th Century novel the young man goes through many adventures, telling us many things about the society of New York at that time. Slavery, sexuality, politics and class prejudices are all themes explored by following the immigrant from London make his way on Manhattan island. The title refers to the location of the banking house in New York.
The best thing about the book is that the author keeps us guessing, right up to the end. We are not privy to the reasons for Mr Smith’s arrival or answers to the question of what he will do with the money when, or if, it is granted. There are clues, I realised once I had finished, but the impetus to keep reading is strong. The ‘answer’ when it comes is both serious and satisfying and places the comedy in sharp relief.
‘Golden Hill’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?