Tuesday, February 13, 2018
by Francis Spufford
A bird and a cage. Not a bird in a cage, as you like to imagine: that is sentiment, that is you inducing yourself in the pleasure of conceiving yourself a victim, and being warranted by it for any amount of poison. No, you are yourself the cage. It is not made of your circumstances. It is made of your passions...
In November of 1746, one William Smith of London lands in New York, a rustic town of 7,000 stuck on the tip of small island in a large harbor. He walks immediately to a necessarily small trading house and asks if they will honor a note drawn on a famous bank in England. Since the trading house is reliant on the bank for credit and a good reputation in trade, they don't really have a choice and they agree - stating only that if the note is for more than 5 pounds Mr Smith will have to come back the next day as they raise the money. Smith presents a note for 1,000 pounds sterling.
What follows is a romp through colonial New York which touches on issues of business, banking and finance, but also involves gender relations, slavery and racism, sexuality, a card game named piquet, dueling, party politics, coffee houses and the state of theater in early America. Mr Spufford is an historian writing his first novel. Much of the detail of Smith's time in New York is fascinating to me, but some of it was skimmable. The exact nature of the play in piquet seems irrelevant to plot, theme and character and I glanced over it. Other readers may find the parts I found fascinating - banking, dueling, travel, weather, more or less fascinating.
All of this is driven by the mystery of what Smith is doing in New York and what the thousand pounds is for. He hints liberally that he is there to perform some task with the money, but waits until very late in the novel to reveal what the task is. As the people of New York immediately decide he is a thief, conman, lackey of the governor or political operator for the nascent Assembly of councilman the real engine of the plot is his attempts to survive banishment, imprisonment and threats against his life.
Oh, and there is a love story. And a highly improbable sex scene.
I found the book hard to put down and had one of those weeks when commuting home was the highlight of my day. Much of the prose is remarkable and several characters - primarily Smith and his love interest, Tabitha Lovell - are very well drawn.
In the end, the mystery was largely irrelevant and something of a disappointment, but if the final pages did not live up to the quality and excitement of what preceded them, the overall bargain was still in my favor.
Posted by JPLoonam at 8:52 PM