Golden Hill is a beautifully written, absolutely engaging, wonderful historical novel set in New York in the autumn of 1746. A young man named Richard Smith arrives in town with a note from an English bank authorizing him to withdraw from a New York financial house more money than anyone has on hand in the colony at that point. Smith has to wait in New York for three months until his bank note can be honoured — and, for reasons of his own, he has to keep his purpose, and what he intends to do with the money, entirely to himself while he waits.
This is not easy, in a town of just 7000 people where everyone is intensely interested in everyone’s business, and political tensions divide the colonists into various camps. Everyone has a theory about what Smith is up to, and the author manages the difficult trick of making Smith the point-of-view character in a novel with third-person limited point of view, without ever fully revealing everything Smith knows or plans.
Things spin out of control rapidly: Smith makes friends and enemies, falls in love, gets arrested not once but twice, fights a duel, is accused of spying, and generally disturbs everything around him. He learns a great deal himself during the process, and one of the joys of the book is watching how much Francis Spufford allows us to see of Smith’s inner self without ever giving away all his secrets.
The other joys are the wonderful, detailed evocation of colonial New York thirty years before the Revolution, every tiny detail vivid and believable, and a lively narrative voice that would sound nearly at home among the writers of Smith’s own day, yet is completely accessible to the modern reader.
I don’t want to spoil this wonderful novel, but every review you ever read of Golden Hill will tell you there’s a big twist at the end. I’ll say that I didn’t like the twist at all. My reaction to the ending was so strong it might have ruined my enjoyment of this book, except the book is just too wonderful to be ruined, so in my head I had to mentally edit the ending to something I could live with. But lots of other people absolutely love how it ended, so your mileage may vary. If you love historical fiction, do read Golden Hill. You might, like me, be frustrated in the end, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry.