The cover of Donna Tartt’s much-awaited novel, set in the underworld of art restoration, is itself a work of art.
As fans of The Secret History will tell you, we have been waiting impatiently for a new novel by its author. Donna Tartt writes sparingly; a book every decade, and the wait for The Goldfinch has been 13 long years. Her fans will also tell you that you don’t talk about a new work from her without first talking about its jacket cover. Long before I began reading The Goldfinch, I had gotten quite attached to its cover. I had trawled the Net to find a nice, high- resolution image of the jacket and then made it my screen saver. Each morning, for the last couple of months, the cover is the first thing I would glimpse when my laptop booted: a little tear in a page that reveals a yellow finch; you could see the picture is a painting.
The tiny tear in the page juts out, as if you can feel it with your fingers. It isn’t a tear as much as if someone has peeled the paper off, as if you had peeled it off to see what lay behind. The goldfinch is at the centre and the rest of the cover is white — paper white — with the title and author scrawled in black crayon. I was quite sure this hypnotising jacket must be the work of the star designer Chip Kidd, but as it turned out, it wasn’t! Kidd had designed Tartt’s previous two covers: the celebrated acetate cover for The Secret History and the equally droll one for The Little Friend. (This one is by Keith Hayes, Little Brown’s art director). All three covers I see now are really veiled covers within covers. To see what the cover of The Secret History contained, you had to peer through the fine, tracing sheet like acetate wrapper, the face of a little girl on The Little Friend that turned out to be the face of a doll when you looked inside.
And the tiny tear out of which the gold finch peeps through is a little-known masterpiece of the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt (and Vermeer’s teacher) who died young. Very little of his work survived, but luckily “The Goldfinch” (1654), an oil on canvas, is one of them. Looking closer at the painting, I noticed that beneath its loveliness is sorrow, a heartbreaking forlornness: the bird is “chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.” There’s nothing sentimental about the painting, which is why you see the beauty of it first and then the pain. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, one of the characters notes this about the painting: “There’s a doubleness. You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird.” Doubleness. That’s one of themes running through Tartt’s work and that’s what all her jacket covers hint at.
The young hero of the novel, Theo Decker, realises this when his mother, who passionately loves this painting, takes him to a museum one rainy afternoon to show it to him. “Such a mysterious picture, so simple,” she whispers to him. “Really tender — invites you to stand close, you know? But Theo can only see its shackled foot and the terrible chain. Just a little later there’s an explosion in the museum. Theo’s mother dies and he escapes with the little canvas. “The Goldfinch” is now his, but he can’t show it to anyone. It is his secret. It is this little treasure that will sustain him as he grows up. Donna Tartt’s new novel is not a heart-stopping thriller like The Secret History, or the adventure-mystery The Little Friend. The Goldfinch is a Dickensian tale, a full 771-page bildungsroman that plays out in a criminal underworld of art and antiques restoration.
The writing is beautiful. And once again, the story is about art, love, work and death. There’s a passage at the end that brings it all together, as Theo sums up. “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important; whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair…it is a glory and privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch. For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time — so too has love…And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”