New York in 1746, three decades before “Hamilton” and all that, was a small but industrious town of 7,000, an inkling of the Gotham it would become. “This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do,” the exquisitely named and clearly clairvoyant Septimus Oakeshott warns in Francis Spufford’s exhilarating first novel, “Golden Hill.” Residents, he declares, are “wild, suspicious, combustible — and the devil to govern.”
Our young, handsome hero is an international man of mystery, fresh off the boat from London with no introduction but a note for a thousand pounds sterling, a fortune worthy of Croesus and enough to break a trading house. His name is Smith, project onto him what you will, for he reveals little.
The man in the green coat — green to the new world, not so much to performing a part — quickly becomes known as “the very rich boy who won’t answer questions. ”
And whoosh — we are off!
Spufford, a prize-gilded author of five works of nonfiction, including “I May Be Some Time ,” has finally delivered a novel, and it’s a wonder. It has racked up a mantel of English literary awards and was crowned the British Sunday Times’s novel of the year.
“Golden Hill” is a homage to the action-packed works of 18th-century masters like Sterne, Smollett and Fielding but with Spufford’s nimble fingers on fast forward, speeding along character — such characters! — and plot at a delirious pace.
“Golden Hill” offers sparring lovers, hidden identities, theater, “spectacular debauchery,” a duel (take that, “Hamilton”!), sedition, a prison stint, insidious small-town politics, a voluptuous thespian named Terpie Tomlinson (“Every time she misremembers a line, she’ll give a flash of thigh”) and multiple reversals of fortune (naturally). A feast! Also, multiple secrets and masked identities, including that of the novel’s wry narrator. Almost everyone is an actor on the stage of nascent New York.
Upon arrival, Smith immediately goes to cash his note with the prosperous trader Lovell, resident of Golden Hill, the highest spot in all of tiny New York (home now to the Financial District) and future site of a 1770 battle that provided tinder for the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, all Lovell can deliver is a small offering until Smith’s legitimacy is confirmed: stacks of coins and wads of paper from multiple countries and several colonies, the uselessness of Rhode Island currency a running gag.
Ah, but Lovell has two daughters: fair, honorable and — wouldn’t you know it? — dull Flora; and stern, dark-tressed Tabitha, a woman of pronounced intelligence and bite. A fan of Shakespeare, Tabitha says, “I am not a great one for novels, ” even while becoming the fetching heroine of this one.
Smith and Tabitha spar exquisitely, claiming not to be at all like Benedick and Beatrice but fooling no one. “You make everything else in a room look dull,” a smitten Smith informs Tabitha. “Your face is more alive than anyone else’s, to me. All the other faces are dirty windows, to me, smeared with chalk and street-spatter; yours is clear though, to the soul behind.”
In 1756, London was the largest city in Europe with a population of 700,000, a hundred times that of striving New York. Smith is a man of the world, well-traveled, a master of languages, a master at fitting in almost anywhere, yet he’s completely at sea on land that is not yet a nation or even an idea of one.
Spufford has immersed himself in the 18th-century quotidian world on either side of the ocean. “Golden Hill” possesses a fluency and immediacy, a feast of the senses, without ever being pedantic. It is a historical novel for people who might not like them.
In a year already ripe with tremendous fiction, did I mention that I love this book? I love this book.
Karen Heller is a writer for The Washington Post.
By Francis Spufford
Scribner. 302 pp. $26