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'Golden Hill' is a terrific debut historical novel, set in 1746 Manhattan

A stranger bearing a large bill arrives in the small muddy town of colonial New York, and high jinks ensue.

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Golden Hill
By Francis Spufford
Scribner
320 pp.

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“Well, I still hate novels,” says one character toward the end of Francis Spufford's debut novel Golden Hill. “They still seem to me to be tissues of exaggeration, simplification, a sweetness that falsifies; and now I know this truth from, as it were, the inside, having written one myself, and marked all the sleights and tricks required to tease out a very partial understanding, a perished cloth more holes than thread, into what seems a smooth continuous fabric.”

It's an occupational hazard, particularly in historical fiction: the exaggeration, the simplification, the sweetness that falsifies. Readers steeped in the history part of a historical novel will inevitably find the neatening anachronisms the writer thought necessary to tell the story; readers seeking the release and wonder of the fiction part of a historical novel will often find themselves bumping into blocks of exposition.

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Francis Spufford is familiar with such issues, although he comes at them from the other side of the fence; he's the author of a number of well-received works of history and nonfiction, books like "I May Be Some Time" and "Unapologetic," his recent and very rewarding book on contemporary Christianity. He knows the challenge of working historical fiction into just the right balance of period detail and dramaturgy, and in "Golden Hill" he compounds that challenge of balance with that of pastiche: his fiction debut is a merry homage to the great novels of the 18th century, a carefully-tuned echo of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding.

The story begins along the most familiar axes of all fiction: a stranger comes to town. The stranger in question is a handsome young man named Mr. Smith, freshly arrived from England in the small muddy 1746 town of New York at the shank end of the island of Manhattan. He presents himself at the counting house of Lovell & Company bearing a bill drawn by their London colleagues – a bill for the staggering sum of a thousand pounds. He expects the money, but he's in no hurry, and he's not inclined to explain himself, despite Mr. Lovell's wails of protest: “Do you know what will happen if I accept your bill, for your secret business, your closed-mouth business, your smiling business, your confidential business?”

Naturally, such a mystery so freshly stepped off the boat excites the interest of the entire town, and Spufford unfolds his subsequent adventures with a fine ear for the arch language of the day, and with a very satisfying feel for sly comedy. At the center of everything is wry, charismatic Smith who's as observant as he is enigmatic and who immediately draws to himself all the attention and suspicion of the townsfolk. Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the Governor and the book's most interesting character, warns Smith that although the officials of the place don't know exactly what he is, they very much know what they'd rather he weren't: “We would rather you were not a spy. We would rather you were not a hireling of the ministry,” Oakeshott tells him. “We would rather you were not a scoundrel, come to spoil the credit of London paper in the city.” (In one of our first tastes of Spufford's knowing humor, Smith quickly replies, “I am not a spy or a hireling.”)

The book's multiple plots all extend outward from the one fixed point of Smith's arrival, which makes it a welcoming reading experience as well as an interesting one. Smith encounters the whole gamut of characters in the frontier world: slaves, mobs, molls, thieves, insurgents, and of course a love interest, Lovell's strong-willed daughter Tabitha. The American Revolution is still 30 years away at the time of the novel, but Spufford's many characters thrum and bristle with the kind of cantankerousness that bodes poorly for smooth colonial rule. “This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do,” Smith is warned at one point. “Take 'em as they take themselves, and [the colonists] are the innocent shopkeepers, placid and earnest, plucked by a lucky fortune out from corruption. But the truth is that they are wild, suspicious, combustible – and the very devil to govern.”

As faithful, even sometimes slavish, as "Golden Hill" is to its great template novels of centuries ago, the book has a one-two combination of twists at the very end that would have been all but unthinkable to the likes of Sterne or Smollett. These twists are pure products of cinema, not literature – but even readers who tend to fume at such gimmicks will have built up such a store of affection for this terrific novel that they'll be inclined to forgive all. With "Golden Hill" Spufford adds another genre to an already impressive résumé.