New York, a small frontier town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy autumn night, a mysterious, handsome stranger, fresh off the long Atlantic crossing from England, turns up at a counting house on Golden Hill Street in Manhattan. The enigmatic young man has a suspicious yet compelling proposition. From his pocket, he produces what seems to be a promissory note for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. An enormous sum of money in 1746, this bill has the power to shake the whole local economy as well as the political establishment. And, amiable and charming though Smith is, he won’t explain who he is or where he comes from, let alone what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.
Spufford’s intricately plotted novel requires the reader to work out whether the New York merchants should trust this stranger or not. Is he a fraud or is he genuine? Should they risk their credit and refuse to pay him? Should they befriend him? Does he deserve to be seduced or arrested or even murdered? A rollercoaster of a ride, the gripping plot twists and turns in every direction until the last piece of the puzzle finally slots into place on the last page.
Golden Hill’s freshness comes from Spufford’s ability to paint a detailed and fascinating picture of the provincial and claustrophobic New York of 1746, a place so very different from its later self yet subtly shadowed by the great city to come. Spuffords’s New York is a city in the process of creating itself and I was gripped by his wonderful, painterly descriptions of the cobbled streets of Manhattan, the docks and the duels, the rooftop chases and the jails, the gossipy coffeehouses and the sexual scandals.
This early Manhattan is already a place where a personable young man with quick wits can reinvent himself, fall in love and nearly get himself killed. The multicultural mix of the city is in full flood with the town’s regimented social elite rooted in a cross-culture of Dutch and English and the reader becomes fully immersed in 18th-century life with all its prejudices and preoccupations.
This is a meticulously researched and cleverly plotted first novel and a thrilling and pacy read. It is a book that is both about the 18th century and that apes the language and genre type of the novel’s form in that century. It’s an ambitious premise, but Spufford succeeds in writing an original and entertaining book. Golden Hill is a joy to read.
Golden Hill is published by Faber and Faber