book review, historical fiction, history

Review: Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford


Golden Hill opens in 1746 Manhattan and follows the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Smith. Smith keeps both the characters and reader guessing his motives and identity, as he arrives in New York with a voucher for a sum of money larger than anyone of his age and station should have. It is important to note that the entirety of this book hinges on the fact that the reader doesn’t really know who Smith is or what his motives are. That’s a tricky and precarious thing to pull off for a main protagonist, because how can we relate or understand anything the character does? I will admit that I struggled with this framework. Furthermore, I did not feel like even began to know who these characters were and what they were about until about 30% into the book (which is too far into the book to start to really know a character in my opinion.)

I have mixed feelings about Golden Hill. While I know it is a highly praised and awarded book, there were components I struggled with (one point mentioned above, I’ll get to the rest later.) I will start with the things I appreciated, though. Golden Hill is written like an 18th century novel of virtue and moral lessons. While the language is beautiful, some of it seemed to go off on tangents at the expense of the main plot and character development, and in turn made some sections very slow. Another point I appreciated was the fact that Golden Hill examines race, class, and sexuality with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. In fact, near the end of the novel when Smith’s identity and motives are revealed, the reader will find these topics were at the forefront all along. That said, I think I could have related more and been more invested if Smith’s identity and motives were revealed from the get go. I can’t help but wonder why Spufford withheld this information until the very end, and hinged the entire plot on not knowing. Was he trying to challenge the reader’s expectations or was it simply a gotcha gimmick? That said, I did have some idea of the “reveal” before the end confirmed it.

I would have liked to have seen the female characters, namely Tabitha and Zephyra, more fleshed out and examined than they were. Overall, I found the female character to be somewhat flat and relying on tropes/stereotypes, (with Tabitha being the only exception only in moments,) and their presence seemed only to serve Smith’s plot and development.

There were moments throughout Golden Hill where I was captivated and intrigued, but there were equally moments of slow, unnecessary prose and description that made the plot slow and did not really serve character development (for example, 2+ pages to describe a bon fire.)

If you want to get a real flavor of class and culture in 1740s Manhattan, I would encourage you to check out Golden Hill, but be advised that you may not be able to get invested in the characters and plot since so much is withheld by the author. I wanted to like this book more, but appreciated its ending message/mystery reveal.

Grade: B-