Edinburgh Book Festival: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

Golden Hill Francis SpuffordOne of the first events I went to at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last month was a discussion at the Spiegeltent with Francis Spufford and Dilys Rose chaired by Lee Randall. Spufford and Rose are the respective authors of ‘Golden Hill’ and ‘Unspeakable’, two of the most widely acclaimed historical novels of recent months. 

Spufford has written five non-fiction books but ‘Golden Hill’ is his first novel which has already won the Costa First Novel Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Ondaatje Prize last year. It is set in 1746 and tells the story of Richard Smith, an Englishman who arrives in colonial New York to collect a large sum of money. His true reasons for arriving in the city are not made clear at the beginning but when his creditor Lovell struggles to pay up, he becomes embroiled in a series of encounters with various figures in New York’s growing social elite at a time when the city had a population of just 7,000 people.

Unspeakable Dilys RoseI bought a copy of Dilys Rose’s latest novel ‘Unspeakable’ after the event as the premise sounds fascinating. Rose discovered through researching family history that she is related to Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Scotland in 1697 at the age of 20. Aikenhead was a student at Edinburgh University and was betrayed by his friends in a society dominated by religious authoritarianism.

Along with comic novels, I think historical fiction is one of the most difficult genres for authors to get right particularly where the level of research is concerned – too much description can weigh down a good story while obvious inaccuracies will damage an author’s credibility. Spufford said he found maps particularly useful for his research, particularly as there are few structures dating from the mid-18th century left in New York City today, making it more difficult to visualise what the city would have looked like at the time. However, Rose and Spufford both said they reached a point where they had to put research to one side and let the characters and story develop. They were always conscious of the necessity of achieving a fair balance between presenting the historical context accurately without making the text completely impenetrable for a modern audience.

Some may find that both books require some perseverance to get accustomed to the verbose prose style, which will largely depend on the reader’s existing level of historical knowledge. However, although I have yet to read ‘Unspeakable’ which contains dialogue in Scots, I can say that ‘Golden Hill’ succeeds in parodying the picaresque novels of the era with a great deal of humour, particularly in the letter written by Smith to his father from the debtor’s prison which is the most entertaining part.

All six of the events I attended at Edinburgh this year were entertaining and thought-provoking. Ali Smith reading from her forthcoming novel ‘Winter’ and talks on buildings that shaped Scotland and how the city of Edinburgh has inspired so many authors over the centuries were other highlights alongside events with Henry Marsh and Maggie O’Farrell. My festival experience at Edinburgh has been excellent overall – welcoming and well-organised – and I would recommend it to all bibliophiles.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Edinburgh Book Festival: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

  1. I was interested in what you say about Spufford working with maps. The strongest reaction of our Book Group was that we felt we could actually have walked round his New York without getting lost so strong was the feeling of place that he evoked.

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  2. Edinburgh Book fair is a great event, I thoroughly agree; though you do need to be on the page early to get tickets to some of the more popular speakers. I didn’t go this year, it sounds very lively as one might expect. I loved Golden Hill, the pastiche of period novels got my juices flowing and the story with its twist in the tale was magnificent. Yes, New York today is a far cry from the 1740-50s but the book absolutely captured the Dutchness of it, and the unmade up roads and coffee houses added to the glorious muddle of it all. I also have Unspeakable yet to conquer…

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  3. I just listened to Golden Hill and was mightily impressed. He really brought colonial NY to life and the plot kept me guessing till the end.

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  4. Col

    I’ve obviously been living under a rock half the time as I’ve never heard of Unspeakable but like the sound of it. For the other half of my time out from under that rock I did read Golden Hill and loved it – it gave a real atmosphere and life to the early city – in feel and style it reminded me a bit of Peter Carey’s ‘Parrot And Olivier In America’.

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  5. I hadn’t heard of Rose’s book but I’ll look into it, thanks. I’ve seen Spufford speak twice at different festivals and find him such an engaging speaker.

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