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‘Golden Hill’ review: Francis Spufford’s tale of a young man in 18th century NYC

"Golden Hill" by Francis Spufford Photo Credit: Scribner

GOLDEN HILL, by Francis Spufford. Scribner, 303 pp., $26.

It’s 1746, and a young Englishman named Richard Smith arrives in Colonial New York with a piece of paper in his pocket sure to unsettle the merchant Lovell — a bill from a London firm Lovell does business with for 1,000 pounds, payable to the bearer. It’s a fortune, and there’s no way to verify whether the document is authentic — at least not until the next mail packet makes it back and forth across the Atlantic. Smith, a handsome 24-year-old charmer, won’t say what the money is for.

Nobody trusts him. Is he a thief? An agitator? A spy? Everyone watches his every move, and in this tiny settlement, gossip flows almost as quickly as it does in today’s digital city. The enigma of Richard Smith demands a resolution.

This is the premise of “Golden Hill,” 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.

The New York of “Golden Hill” is tiny, a seed of what it will become. The Broad Way rambles up and down, through the town: “The cobbled roadbed seemed to lie along the top of the gentle hummock the island made, between the two rivers, as if it were following out the course of some mostly submerged creature’s spine, with the cobbles as lumpish vertebrae.”

In other ways, it’s just like today’s New York, peopled with schemers of every background, a multicultural stew of English colonists trying to make their fortunes, wealthy Dutch businessmen who have got theirs, ruthless politicians, lovers looking for comfort where they can find it. And slaves, who cook the meals, scrub the cinders from the hearth and see to the needs of their masters — all their needs. The same rhythms of bloom and bluster drive the city’s seasons: What New Yorker wouldn’t relate to this moment in late fall, when you pull up your collar, sheathe your hands with gloves and hunker down for the winter to come:

“The city was shrinking in on itself. . . . It was stoking up its stoves and sitting closer to ’em; it was drawing up its furs around itself. And not a moment too soon. The bare sky at the eastern street-ends, where the masts had thronged, had in it today a bitter green pallor, the unmistakeable colour of impending cold. On the shadowed sides of the streets the frost of the night was not melting, even at noon; and in the maze of little alleys up toward the Broad Way, where the low sun did not shine directly at all, ice already held the dim territory.”

There are two mysteries embedded in “Golden Hill.” What’s the money for? And who’s telling the story? Before these questions are answered, Smith will court Lovell’s prickly daughter, form an unlikely friendship and almost lose his life. In that respect the novel follows the old picaresque form, in which a hero of the lower classes makes his way among the rich and infamous, leaving shock, envy and resentment in his wake. But Spufford has more in mind than just a rollicking tale, though any hint of his intentions would amount to a criminal reveal of Richard’s secret, one this veteran reader did not see coming.

Spufford wrote several acclaimed books of nonfiction before he tried his hand at fiction — “Golden Hill” is his first novel, and it won Britain’s Costa First Novel Award. Read it for Spufford’s brilliant storytelling, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and gift for re-creating a vanished time.

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