Yesterday, the Bird of Night Did Sit

A wonderful novel about the love of art (among many other things) plus a terrific spy thriller made up my reading this time.

Issue #46, Tuesday 20 June 2023

Bookish News


The Women’s Prize for Fiction

Barbara Kingsolver won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel Demon Copperhead. I’ve had this on my “want to read” list for a while.

2023 Penguin Literary Prize winner announced

Congratulations to our 2023 Penguin Literary Prize winner!

We are delighted to announce Michelle See-Tho as the winner of the 2023 Penguin Literary Prize for her book Jade and Emerald! Chosen from nearly 300 submissions, Alison Huber from Readings said, ‘Michelle See-Tho’s vibrant writing style stood out to me immediately as a fresh new Australian voice.’

More details

Miles Franklin Award Shortlist

Just out, the books which are up for Australia’s premier literary award. I’m very pleased to see Limberlost on the list, as it was my pick for the best book I read last year.

More details here.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I went out and bought myself a hardcover copy of this book (admittedly a second-hand copy) almost immediately after I finished reading The Secret History, Tartt’s first novel. I’ve been trying to find time to read it for quite a while, but boy, was it worth the wait.

The Goldfinch is a very long book—771 pages in the edition I bought—and it took me a while to finish. But my interest in the story and the characters never flagged for a moment. The quality of Tartt’s writing is so high that it was a joy to read, even if I did keep stopping to marvel at individual sentences and paragraphs. That may make you think that Tartt’s writing is flowery or pretentiously literary. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her prose is made up of mostly very simple, short words, but she has a talent for writing long, sometimes paragraph-long, perfectly structured sentences which just flow like a river in flood, carrying the reader along. I’ll quote an example later, because I won’t be able to help myself.

But what about the story, I hear you asking? Is The Goldfinch some esoteric literary confection full of angst and navel-gazing? Nope. In some ways it’s as down-to-earth and gritty as a Raymond Chandler novel. It’s a story of terrorism, art theft, drugs and guns. Among many other things, of course.

All right, so what is the story?

Well, we start with a short chapter which acts as a prologue. The whole book is told in the first person. The narrator, Theodore Decker, in his mid 20s, is in Amsterdam at Christmas time, and for some reason he’s confined to his hotel room. He’s cold and ill. He speaks no Dutch, but is obsessively watching local TV trying to work out what is going on about some sort of crime he’s been involved with.

Much of the rest of the novel, of course, is the story of how and why he ended up there.

The real story begins with young Theo at the age of thirteen. He’s in bad trouble at school and has been suspended. On what turns out to be the most critical day of his life, he’s due to attend a disciplinary meeting at the school with his mother, but that meeting is later in the morning, so they fill in time, and end up in one of New York’s major art galleries, where there’s an exhibition on of classic Dutch painting. One of the paintings in the exhibition is The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by the artist Carel Fabritius. Theo’s mother leaves him for a moment in the room with that painting, but before she returns, something terrible happens. A terrorist organisation sets off an explosion which destroys most of the building.

Without going into too much detail, young Theo survives the explosion. He helps a dying old man, who is partially out of his senses, and who in his crazed state insists that Theo take something from the gallery. It’s the painting of The Goldfinch, which has been knocked to the floor and its frame broken.. Bewildered, Theo puts it in a bag and carries it with him. He sets off through the ruined building trying to find his mother, but can’t, so he returns to their apartment to wait for her there. A spoiler here, she died, and the novel deals at length with Theo’s grief and loss and the feeling, which lasts through his life, that he was responsible for her death because they wouldn’t have been in the art gallery if he hadn’t been suspended.

The problematic possession of this little masterpiece of a painting is a thread which runs through the whole story. At first, Theo wants to return it, but then realises that he’s left it too long. The authorities thought that it was destroyed in the explosion, but then other missing pieces, looted from the gallery, start turning up and they start saying The Goldfinch was stolen.

There’s so much in this novel it’s impossible to summarise without becoming tedious. There’s a compelling coming-of-age story, as Theo navigates life without his beloved mother. There’s a story of a heart-breaking life-long hopeless love. There’s alcohol and drugs and guns and violence and antique furniture... Trust me, the story drags you in and won’t let go.

So, about that prose. Let me at least quote this one sentence, this one long sentence. Theo is in New York at Christmas time, feeling miserable. Here’s the quote, one sentence:

Hordes of people on the street, lighted Christmas trees sparkling high on penthouse balconies and complacent Christmas music floating out of shops, and weaving in and out of crowds I had a strange feeling of being already dead, of moving in a vaster sidewalk grayness than the street or even the city could encompass, my soul disconnected from my body and drifting among other souls in a mist somewhere between past and present, Walk Don’t Walk, individual pedestrians floating up strangely isolated and lonely before my eyes, blank faces plugged into earbuds and staring straight ahead, lips moving silently, and the city noise dampened and deafened, under crushing, granite-colored skies that muffled the noise from the street, garbage and newsprint, concrete and drizzle, a dirty winter grayness weighing like stone.

My gosh, she’s a good writer. I'd have to put it down as the best book I've read so far this year. I've already ordered a copy of her second novel, The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and several other awards, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for over thirty weeks.

It was made into a film in 2019, directed by John Crowley, but the film is certainly not highly regarded, with one reviewer calling it “a botch job for the ages” and saying it “appears to be adapting the Cliff’s Notes version of the book instead of the book itself”. Ouch!

But the book itself... I loved it.

Spook Street by Mick Herron

The fourth book in the “Slough House” series of spy thrillers, with the twist that the characters all belong to a department of MI5 where failed spies are sent to do boring, meaningless work in the hope that they’ll resign and save the government having to pay redundancy to them. It’s a great concept, because despite appearances, these failed spies end up becoming involved in a great many live and important cases.

I can’t really outline the story of Spook Street without giving away too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that it begins in the middle of the night when the head of Slough House, the obnoxious Jackson Lamb, is called out to identify the body of one of his team, who has been shot dead. The story then has many twists and turns and deals in large part with the danger to the intelligence services of a retired, elderly ex-spy who is now descending into dementia. He knows far too much, but is no longer capable of keeping his mouth shut.

Great stuff, as usual. I may take a pause before I roll on to the remaining books of the series, however. I think Herron is up to number 9 of the Slough House books so far.

Anaximander and the Nature of Science by Carlo Rovelli

Rovelli is an excellent communicator of complex scientific topics. His own research lies in the area of quantum gravity, a very difficult concept to get your head around. Here, though, he’s setting aside these very up-to-data topics and heading back in time some 2,600- years to discuss the thinking of the Greek philosopher Anaximander.

I hadn’t heard of Anaximander before this, but Rovelli discusses what little is known of him and his thinking. Much of what Anaximander wrote has been lost and we know of him mostly from what others wrote about him and his philosophy.

Nevertheless, from what we do know it’s clear that Anaximander made a number of critical breakthroughs in thinking about the world and how it works. He was, for example, the first to set out that the Earth hangs in space with no support: the sky we see above us continues all around us, below the Earth as well as above it. Indeed, he seems to have understood that the very concepts of “up” and “down” are relative and not absolute.

He was also one of the first to try to describe how the world works without reference to the gods. Rain occurs because water evaporates from the oceans into the clouds and is then falls on the land. The god Poseidon isn’t involved. Nor are thunder and lightning caused by the god Zeus being in a bad temper.

Anaximander, too, was unusual in that while praising his mentor Thales, was open in pointing out his master’s mistakes.

Rovelli uses all of this to investigate what we mean by science and why it’s the very uncertainty of science, its acceptance of endless doubt, that is its strength.

All in all, a really interesting book, well worth reading.

Also Been Reading

Nominees for Best Novel in the 1970 Hugos

I’m working my way through the books which were nominated for Best Novel in the Hugo Awards for 1970, as part of a series of segments called “The Hugo Time Machine” we’ve been doing on our podcast.

I’ll talk about them all together, probably in the next issue.

Artwork generated by Wombo Art. The title is a quote from Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 3).

See you next time!

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