Golden Hill

A Novel of Old New York

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About The Book

A Wall Street Journal Top Ten Fiction Book of 2017 * A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of the Year * A Seattle Times Favorite Book of 2017 * An NPR Best Book of 2017 * A Kirkus Reviews Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year * A Library Journal Top Historical Fiction Book of the Year * Winner of the Costa First Novel Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, and the Desmond Elliott Prize * Winner of the New York City Book Award

“Gorgeously crafted…Spufford's sprawling recreation here is pitch perfect.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“A fast-paced romp that keeps its eyes on the moral conundrums of America.” —The New Yorker

“Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight.” —The New York Times

Golden Hill possesses a fluency and immediacy, a feast of the senses…I love this book.” —The Washington Post

The spectacular first novel from acclaimed nonfiction author Francis Spufford follows the adventures of a mysterious young man in mid-eighteenth century Manhattan, thirty years before the American Revolution.

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger fresh off the boat arrives at a countinghouse door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion shimmering. For in his pocket, he has what seems to be an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Rich in language and historical perception, yet compulsively readable, Golden Hill is “a remarkable achievement—remarkable, especially, in its intelligent re-creation of the early years of what was to become America’s greatest city” (The Wall Street Journal). Spufford paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self, but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble. Golden Hill is “immensely pleasurable…Read it for Spufford’s brilliant storytelling, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and gift for re-creating a vanished time” (New York Newsday).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Golden Hill includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

New York, a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy evening in November, a handsome young stranger who has just arrived by ship knocks at a counting-house door on Golden Hill Street: this is Mr. Smith, amiable, charming, yet strangely determined to keep suspicion simmering. For in his pocket, he has an order for a thousand pounds, a huge sum, and he won’t explain why, or where he comes from, or what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money. Should the New York merchants trust him? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay? Should they befriend him, seduce him, arrest him; maybe even kill him?

Rich in language and historical perception, Golden Hill paints an irresistible picture of a New York provokingly different from its later metropolitan self but already entirely a place where a young man with a fast tongue can invent himself afresh, fall in love—and find a world of trouble.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. “What a difference a frame makes!” thinks Mr. Smith while first looking in on the room occupied by Tabitha, Flora, and Zephyr, less than an hour after arriving in New York (p. 10). What difference does the frame of Golden Hill, revealed in Tabitha’s postscript on pages 295-299, make in your understanding of the novel? What difference does it make in your enjoyment of the novel?

2. Saracen conjurer, agent of the French, actor, rogue, mountebank: Mr. Smith is called each of these things at some point during his time in New York. Which label is most fitting and why?

3. Mr. Lovell offers a definition of “commerce” in the following: “Commerce is trust, sir. Commerce is need and need together, sir. Commerce is putting a hand in answer into a hand out-stretched” (p.5). How does this definition apply to Mr. Smith’s mission as revealed later on? Would you call his purpose in New York “commerce” or something else?

4. Though he is never identified, who do you think the long-haired thief who stole Mr. Smith’s pocket book is? For whom was he working?

5. Golden Hill is set in 1746, eighty-two years after Manhattan passed from Dutch to British sovereignty, and thirty-seven years before it became American. Describe the various attitudes of the Manhattanites toward Britain and Holland. Where do you see fault lines that portend the coming revolution?

6. Examine Mr. Smith’s dreams during his nights of fitful sleep, first on Septimus’s too-small sofa (p. 89-90), and later on the night after his thumb is branded (p. 266-267). From the chessboard to the “wine-coloured snowman,” what do the symbols in these dreams reveal to us about Mr. Smith and his feelings toward his mission?

7. Why was Tabitha pretending to be crippled? Why do you think Mr. Smith refrained from asking her to explain her behavior (p. 97)?

8. Cato, the play put on by Septimus, is the account of the final hours of Marcus Porcius Cato, a Stoic whose deeds, rhetoric, and resistance to the tyranny of Caesar made him an icon of virtue and liberty. As Septimus says, it “tickles all the themes that New-York loves best.” Considering the political atmosphere of New York in 1746, do you agree? Considering the New York City of today, do you agree?

9. “A villain is hard to do without,” says Mr. Smith to Septimus, about the role of Sempronius in their production of Cato (p. 205). Who, if anyone, is the villain of Golden Hill?

10. Mr. Smith says a phrase to Zephyr in the Ghanaian language Twi that is not translated: “Aane, me ara ni nnipa a wo twen no” (p. 288). What do you think he is saying to her?

11. Mr. Smith tells Tabitha that she is “a bird and a cage” (p. 281). What does he mean? Is this true of other female characters in the novel? Is this true of Mr. Smith himself? What other literary figures or film characters fit this description?

12. Golden Hill presents a society in which novels are shown to inspire addiction (Flora consumes them “like laudanum”) as well as aversion (Tabitha calls them “Slush for small minds,” “pabulum for the easily pleased”). Find other examples of meta-textual references throughout Golden Hill, including places where the narrator overtly intrudes upon the story. How do these moments force us to reevaluate the novel’s universe and purpose? What shortcomings of the novel as a form do these moments expose?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Immerse yourself in Mr. Smith’s New York City by finding maps of Manhattan and the surrounding region from the early 1800s. Locate streets and landmarks mentioned in Golden Hill.

2. Research picaresque novels and decide if Golden Hill fits into the traditions of the genre. Read another modern picaresque novel from the list below and compare its style to Golden Hill. What qualities do they share?

Handling Sin by Michael Malone

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

3. Revisit the poems recited by Sinterklaas (Judge De Lancey) about Hendrick, Mr. Lovell, Piet Van Loon, Mr. Smith, and Tabitha on pages 192 – 197. Take turns composing poems about other members of your book club that “praise the virtuous, at this time / And pay back wickedness, in rhyme!

About The Author

Photograph by Bart Koetsier

Francis Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books Built, Backroom Boys, Red Plenty (which was translated into nine languages), and most recently, Unapologetic. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge, England. Golden Hill is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (February 2018)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501163883

Raves and Reviews

“Delirious storytelling backfilled with this much intelligence is a rare and happy sight…Spufford’s resources are implausibly deep. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of Shakespeare, the fellow is myriad-minded.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times                                      

"Francis Spufford has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature." —Nick Hornby                                             

“One is drawn ineluctably into the world of colonial New York from the first sentence of Golden Hill.  Wonderfully written and entertaining.” —Kevin Baker                             

“Admirably eccentric… The boisterous plot is perfectly in keeping with its mid-18th century setting… This wonderful novel concludes with one further revelation, one that will make you reflect once again what a gloriously tricky fellow this Francis Spufford is.” —Boston Globe                                              

“Francis Spufford’s fiction début is a fast-paced romp, but it keeps its eyes on the moral conundrums of America…[He is] an author capable of making any topic, however unlikely, at once fascinating and amusing. Golden Hill is both.” —The New Yorker                               

“A virtuoso literary performance.” —Booklist, starred review                                     

“A successful homage to the great master of the picaresque novel, Henry Fielding.” —Library Journal, starred review                                                  

“Recounting this picaresque rale with serious undertones, Spufford adeptly captures 18th-century commercial practices and linguistic peculiarities as well as pre-Revolutionary Manhattan’s cultural hodgepodge…readers are rewarded with a feast of language, character, local color, and historical detail.”  —Publishers Weekly                                      

“Addictively readable.” —Mark Haddon               

“Francis Spufford has long been one of my favourite writers of non-fiction; he is now becoming a favourite writer of fiction as well. Golden Hill is a meticulously crafted and brilliantly written novel that is both an affectionate homage to the 18th century novel and a taut and thoughtful tale.” —Iain Pears         

“I loved this book so much. Golden Hill wears its research with incredible insouciance and grace; a rollicking picaresque, it is threaded through with darkness but has a heart of gold.”—Jo Baker                                        

 “Marvelous.  A vivid re-creation of colonial New York, in which the adventures of Mr. Smith, who may be a charlatan or a hero, make for a page turner, with an unexpected and unusually satisfying ending.” —C. J. Sansom                                  

“Sparkling…A first-rate entertainment with a rich historical feel and some delightful twists.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review  

Golden Hill is a novel of gloriously capacious humanity, thick-woven with life in all its oddness and familiarity, a novel of such joy it leaves you beaming, and such seriousness that it asks to be read again and again ... this novel is verifiable gold.” Sunday Telegraph (UK)                               

“The intoxicating effect of Golden Hill is much more than an experiment in form. [Spufford] has created a complete world, employing his archivist skills to the great advantage of his novel ... This is a book born of patience, of knowledge accrued and distilled over decades, a style honed by practice. There are single scenes here more illuminating, more lovingly wrought, than entire books.” —Financial Times (UK)                                

“Like a newly discovered novel by Henry Fielding with extra material by Martin Scorsese. Why it works so well is largely down to Spufford's superb re-creation of New York ... His writing crackles with energy and glee, and when Smith's secret is finally revealed it is hugely satisfying on every level. For its payoff alone Golden Hill deserves a big shiny star.” The Times (UK)                    

“Splendidly entertaining and ingenious ... Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly ... a first-class period entertainment.” —Guardian (UK)                                              

“Paying tribute to writers such as Fielding, Francis Spufford's creation exudes a zesty, pin-sharp contemporaneity ... colonial New York takes palpable shape in his dazzlingly visual, pacy and cleverly plotted novel.” Daily Mail (UK)                                               

Golden Hill shows a level of showmanship and skill which seems more like a crowning achievement than a debut . [Spufford] brings his people and situations to life with glancing ease ... They all live and breathe with conviction ... His descriptive powers are amazing ... Spufford's extraordinary visual imagination and brilliant pacing seems to owe more to the movies than anything else.” —Evening Standard (UK)                                       

“The best 18th century novel since the 18th century.” —BBC Radio 4                                      

 “The entire flavor, tone, and prose of the book make this an exceptional read whose pages practically flew by.” —Historical Novel Society                               

“There’s more life and variety in a single page of Francis Spufford’s prose than there is in many full-length books.” —Commonweal                                  

“With Golden Hill, Spufford adds another genre to an already impressive résumé.”  —Christian Science Monitor

“Rich in authentic detail, energized by crackling dialogue, and flushed with lyrical grace…Golden Hill is a stunning evocation of a town before it boomed into a metropolis.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune                                    

Golden Hill is a novel of place, and its richness of description and 18th century expression beggars the imagination. It is an extraordinary re-creation.” —The Buffalo News                                      

“An immensely pleasurable novel by British author Francis Spufford that will charm New Yorkers acquainted with their city’s history and anyone who loves a well-told story…Read it for Spufford’s brilliant storytelling, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and gift for re-creating a vanished time.” —Mary Ann Gwinn, Newsday

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