Even after the Pulitzer, it is impossible to slot Donna Tartt
When you read The Goldfinch, those eleven years Donna Tartt spent writing it suddenly make sense. That she compares writing each book to a long sea-voyage also makes sense. The Goldfinch, its 700 plus pages filled with Tartt’s craftsmanship (for it would be an understatement to call it anything else), is quite like a voyage. A Dickensian tale that draws you in, the book has become Tartt’s triumph, winning her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and high praise, described as “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel … that stimulates the mind and touches the heart”.
This is, perhaps, a strangely proud moment for readers who had discovered Tartt’s debut book, “The Secret History”, back in 1992. It was a rare book, one that justified the hype that immediately began to surround it. Started while she was still in college, Tartt’s story about a tightly knit group of college friends played with two genres usually separated in both our minds as well as on the bookshelves. With Secret History, Tartt brought together the rarefied world of ivory tower intellectuals dabbling in Greek, Latin and privileged comfort, and the pace and fevered excitement of a murder; one that was, quite interestingly, without a mystery. The book was loved, oddly enough, for its ideas as well as its plot, a heady combination of fleshed out characters in a vividly real story, set as it was in a very fictional university in New England.
This is, perhaps, where Tartt’s strength lies. She is not prolific, of course, with three books published in a little over three decades, but she can write each sentence as if it was a work of art. She can sit looking at a copy of Fabritius’ 17th Century painting of the pet goldfinch for eleven years and produce a book that becomes a sort of love letter to this very art, one that seamlessly combines with literature and offers a book so rich with fleshed out characters that each of them become real.
Inside The Goldfinch, Tartt offers New York to the reader, and this New York, complete with a boy and his loss, becomes entirely too real. Tartt’s characters don’t just make you feel happy, or sad. Instead, they evoke bizarrely real emotions. You watch Theo Decker stumble through life, clutching at the purloined Goldfinch painting his dead mother loved, and you feel angry, upset, proud, frustrated, and a host of other emotions, till the book is no longer just words and stories, but something much more.
It’s this power Tartt gives her characters that drives her books. These flawed characters who you want to meet, to talk to, and to sometimes shake by the shoulders, display Tartt's true prowess. Whether it is the 12 year old Harriet in The Little Friend; serious, bookish and intent on avenging the murder of her baby brother, or Richard Papen from The Secret History, taking hesitant first steps into a club of aloof, arrogant and intelligent students, ashamed of his blue-collar roots and guardedly envious of his privileged company, Tartt lends credibility to characters and situations that could, if handled differently, become quite improbable.
With each book exploring a new genre, a new story, Tartt has become impossible to slot. And with each book, she has shown us that the written word can be like art, and summon images so powerful that seem almost tangible. And now, the Pulitzer prize only reiterates what Tartt’s readers, both old and new, had already discovered. This is an author who will take her time, perhaps making us wait another decade before she delivers her next. But when she does, it'll be a book that will be, much like The Goldfinch, worth every single moment spent waiting.
The Goldfinch, its 700-plus pages filled with Tartt’s craftsmanship, is quite like a voyage