“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown and Co., 2013. $30
In Donna Tartt’s new novel, a 13-year-old boy survives a terrorist bomb at the Metropolitan Museum that kills his mother as they are viewing an exhibition of Flemish paintings.
In the destruction and confusion, he cares for a dying antiques dealer who urges him to flee with a small but priceless 1654 masterpiece by Carl Fabritius, “The Goldfinch.”
Afterward, he is taken in by the wealthy parents of a schoolmate, sometimes finds refuge with the furniture restorer at the antiques shop, and, after the sudden appearance of his wayward gambler father, moves to Las Vegas where he joins up with a Ukrainian juvenile delinquent a few years older.
After a return to New York, some social climbing through antiquarian connections, and a harrowing episode among drug dealers and art thieves, he finds a means to return the painting.
In such a summary account, the novel is unimpressive, but so too are summary accounts of “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Great Gatsby,” books on the shelf of American classics next to which this one will eventually be placed.
For “The Goldfinch” is brilliant, compelling, fascinating, haunting — unquestionably the best novel by anyone anywhere in many years.
Two decades ago, Tartt’s first novel, “The Secret History,” was an extended meditation on the proposition that what has been done cannot be undone, that terrible deeds can never be set right, that “remorse,” that modern psychological version of the Ancient Greek Furies in Aeschylus’s Oresteian Trilogy, is implacable.
Now, Tartt offers an absolution of sorts. In the Fabritius painting, the little yellow bird is condemned to its perch forever by a short chain around an ankle, able to flutter but not escape.
“Yet, even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”
So too the boy, Theo Decker, becomes a man. From experience he knows “here’s the truth: life is catastrophe.”
Over and over, he has “the heart-shock of believing, for only a moment, that you might just have what could never be yours.”
He recognizes, in the aphorism of François de La Rochefoucauld, “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.”
Tartt’s language mesmerizes as she describes this dismay at “a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed.”
But she grants Decker redemption. Although his past may bind him, like the goldfinch, he refuses his fate: “Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean that we have to bow and grovel to it.” He has found solace “where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”
Tartt evokes place, conjures personalities, and makes implausible plot inevitable. Her ear for dialogue from heights to dregs is pitch-perfect. She scatters allusions from literature, art, philosophy, and history to create kaleidoscopic context. Her writing is enthralling and unforgettable.
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at LSU . His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).