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In New York You Can be a New Man: Golden Hill | 2016

In New York You Can be a New Man: Golden Hill | 2016

"New York had gathered to ignite its biggest signal of assertion and wrath, and the intensity of the light and heat only seemed to reveal, for once at its true scale, the immense darkness of the continent at whose edge the little city perched--from this one pinpoint of defiant flame, the thousands upon thousands of miles of night unrolling westwards. For the first time Smith, dizzy with sparks and smoke, lost the comfortable understanding of size he had brought with him from home, and the awe and the fear of the New World broke in upon him. As if, til then, he had been inhabiting a little doll's house, and misled by its neat veneers had mistaken it for the world, until with a splintering crunch its sides and front were broken off, and it proved to be standing all alone in the forests of the night; inches high, among silent, huge glimmering trees."

- Golden Hill, p. 72

The Sum of It:

We meet our main character as we meet the New York of 1746, a small city balanced on the edge of the New World blending the architectural styles of the British and Dutch. Richard Smith, a Londoner, is agitated as the ship on which he has been a passenger makes a slow entrance into misty New York harbor. He has come to New York on a mission, and the minute he hits the shore he is at a run to pursue it, bolting from the ship to a money exchange, bearing a letter promising him a fortune. The financier is skeptical, and Smith plays to his skepticism, fostering around himself an air of mystery which quickly swirls through the fog and makes him a person of interest to everyone in New York. On his first visit to the financier's home, Smith meets the man's two daughters, Flora, fair and pleasant, and Tabitha, brooding and mischievous. Smith is basically ensorcelled by Tabitha's dark wit, and she becomes a part of his story in a way he couldn't anticipate. 

Smith's true identity, the source of his alleged wealth, and his mission in New World become fodder for discussion across the city as the financier awaits further letters of proof that his request to cash in a check from London is genuine. For sixty days Smith must deftly field the questions and accusations of reporters, financiers, actors and lawyers, maintaining his secrecy and navigating the politics of a new city from coffee houses to rich dinners with the Governor, everyone eager to discover him. He finds himself at turns celebrated as a man of immense wealth, accused as a spy and a cheat, chased sprinting through the streets on Guy Fawkes night having picked a fight with the wrong man, and desperately attempting to avoid the distraction Tabitha represents. By the time his mystery is revealed, the reader has a clear picture of the city, the time, the intrigue, and the man's character. 

The B & C Treatment:

Golden Hill, published in 2016 but out in paperback this month, is a rare tale. Making my way through the first chapter of this book, I was genuinely afraid that my brain wasn't up to it. Both the dialogue and the descriptions are written in the parlance of the time, requiring fairly significant concentration to ensure the meaning isn't missed. However, by the end of the chapter, the urgency of Richard's situation and secret, and the mystery surrounding him and his mission, had pulled me in completely. I stayed up til 3 a.m. fairly desperate to learn Richard's true identity, whether he'd be able to maintain his guise until his fortune was paid out, whether he'd be caught out by a rough band in the night, and what he really planned to do with his fortune if he got his hands on it. 

This novel brings the timbers, cobblestones, and historical characters of nearly 300 years ago into clear relief. Though sometimes books that seek to portray the intrigue and political tensions of a by-gone era as thrilling fall flat in that goal, the perfectly drawn imagery and timeless motivations, struggles, wrongs, and wariness, inherent to men and women of every era make this story feel more real and present than many books set in the present day. It also digs deep on issues of class and race in unexpected ways. The language begins as a bit of a distraction, but that effect wanes, and I stopped noticing what initially felt like a translation as the story drew me in completely. What I'm saying is, this book is really and truly excellent, and if you like historical fiction, I definitely recommend it. 

- E.  

You may like Golden Hill if you like: 

  • Thoroughly researched historical fiction with vividly drawn characters and intriguing plots such as The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, or The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
  • Meticulously painted historical non-fiction that offers the pace and thrill of fiction such as Devil in the White City by Eric Larson or Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Fowler
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