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Past times and places

05 August 2016

Richard Harries on a story set long ago


Golden Hill
Francis Spufford
Faber & Faber £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30



FRANCIS SPUFFORD is an ac­claimed writer of non-fiction, and his book Unapologetic, a defence of the emotional truth of the Christian faith, made a particular impact on many readers. This is his first novel.

It is set in New York in 1745, when George II was King, and when that city was in its earliest stages of developing as a finance and trading centre, still conscious of its links with Dutch Amsterdam. It was a rough and violent place, but proudly conscious of its “liberty”. Into this tiny but vibrant community comes a stranger from England carrying a £1000 bill on one of the New York trading companies, guaranteed by a firm in London with which the com­pany has reciprocal arrange­ments. Is this genuine, in which case the stranger is a wealthy man who should be courted for business? Or is he a criminal who should be hanged for fraud?

The fact that the next ship that sails in does not contain the expected letter of confirmation bodes ill, and, in the tale that follows, the stranger’s fortunes fluctuate as people’s estim­ates of him change. At one stage, he is very nearly thrown on a bonfire on Guy Fawkes Day, to be burnt as a papist. He falls in love with a woman who seems only to scorn him; and he is seduced instead by a voluptu­ous “slug”, as she is unkindly called.

In the letters he writes home it is made clear that the stranger has dis­appointed his father. He has been a ne’er-do-well. But the man assures his father that, in the end, he will approve of this strange mission to the new world, and will see him in a different light. There is a surprise (or near-surprise) ending, in which we finally learn what it is all about.

Spufford’s re-creation of early New York is quite brilliant, each sentence very carefully crafted, in the tone and style of the time. This makes the book one to be read when one is alert and able to ap­­preciate the sophistication of the lines, rather than sleepy; but the scenes are always vivid, and interest is held throughout by the mystery of why the stranger is there at all.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentre­garth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theo­logy at King’s College, London.

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