My boss was enthusing about this novel some months ago and so I decided it was high time to give it a go. Without any idea of what to expect, I found myself captivated by a swaggering tale of secrets and prejudice in mid-18th century New York, and by its enigmatic and mischievous protagonist who – at least at the beginning – had something distinctly Lymondesque about him.
The mysterious Mr Smith disembarks in New York with no warning and a credit bill for one thousand pounds sterling. His arrival throws the modest town into a frenzy of gossip and supposition, not just among the merchant classes, where the unfortunate Lovell must find a way to honour this vast sum, but also among the political establishment, where the precarious balance of power could easily be swayed by a man with such a fortune in his pocket. Charming and nonchalant, Smith evades the questions of his new neighbours and contrives to let just enough slip to make himself fascinating: a handsome young man with the education of a gentleman, who has travelled widely, who has experience on the stage, whose past is veiled in secrecy and whose future is deliberately opaque. Even the legality of the fortune is suspect, for why are there no supporting letters from the London firm of Bayard? Is Smith truly a wealthy young gentleman? Is he a rake, a scoundrel, an imposter? And what does he intend to do with this mound of treasure when he gets it?
Spufford’s narration is perfectly pitched, both in style and character. It has an impeccably period quality, which makes it feel just like an 18th-century picaresque novel (though leavened by modern notions of irony and drama). There are flourishes of language: a face is ‘pouched and lumpish… as if Nature had set to work upon the clay with knuckles‘. Smith encounters some of his new acquaintances in a study so dark that ‘If the room had been a print, it would have been one of those cross-hatched unto Hades by the burin, line upon line, ink upon ink, till the figures are lost in a frenzy of gloom‘. And, if the language shows inventive flair, then the viewpoint is no less creative. Initially it feels like a standard third-person narration, for we’re at Smith’s side throughout the story, sharing his wonder at the New World and witnessing his preparations; but it rapidly dawns on us that his history and plans remain as obscure to us as they do to the New Yorkers.
Besides, the voice of the narrator is clearly not the usual self-effacing voice of the author: no, this narrator occasionally intrudes upon the story, reminding us how much we don’t know and, on several occasions, growing exasperated when lack of personal experience frustrates their efforts to describe a duel or a game of cards. One has the sense of being the third party in the story, besides Smith and the narrator, with the narrator occasionally breaking off the story to cast irritated monologues in our direction. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off, but Spufford does it brilliantly.
Smith replied in quarte. Quinte! Sixte! Prime! Seconde! – But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle, than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, that I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader’s mercy, or rather their sense of resignation. Having previously endured this tale’s treatment of the game of piquet, and of the act of love, they may with luck by now expect no great coherence in the reporting of a sword-fight.
I thought it rather wonderful that the choice of play for the New York winter performance was Cato – not just, obviously, because it brought back happy Baroque memories, but also because the themes so cleverly reflect those of the novel as a whole. Within the play, the noble African prince Juba can become Roman through his love of liberty and honour; he can win the love of the beautiful Marcia, and be cheered as a hero when he slays the villainous senator Sempronius. His colour is rendered insignificant by his moral virtue. But the audience’s cheers for Juba are in stark contrast to their attitudes in the world outside the play, where the possession of African blood is thought to taint a man, no matter how much or how little of it runs in his veins. And, of course, the casting of the play proves to have fascinating echoes – and not only in the unfortunate, bloody mirror of the climactic duel between Juba and Sempronius.
New York is as much the star of the story as Smith. Here we see one of the world’s great cities in its infancy, a city of immigrants which is working its way towards forming its own identity. And we see how, in the midst of its complacency, one daring young man turns all its comfortable assumptions upside down. With duels (both on and off stage), sexual scandal, breathless flights across rooftops and an intriguing protagonist, this is a wonderful romp, full of panache but also, at the end, unexpected poignancy. It’s Spufford’s first novel, according to his biography, but it nevertheless has the sophistication and flair of an author truly in command of his world.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review